Never Too Old to Learn
Personal Perspective: Discovery is a joy right through to life’s end.
On the north side of Indianapolis is a senior living community of about 160 residents. About two dozen of us gather for 90 minutes each week to discuss a good book. The average age of the participants is somewhere in the 80s, and among them are pairs who have been married 68 years, 67 years, and 64 years. They begin filing 20 or 30 minutes before the appointed hour, most on two legs, some on three, and a few on four wheels.
Do our meetings count as higher education? No course credit is being earned. No one is fulfilling distribution requirements, progressing toward a major or degree, or preparing for an entrance exam. No grades are assigned, no tuition is charged, and no dime changes hands. No curriculum committee ever signed off, a department chair or dean granted no permission, and I am not adding any lines to my CV. No institution is moving itself up the rankings.
Our group also defies demographic norms. The students, if I may use this term, have far more of their lives behind them than ahead of them, and they are generally more inclined to reflect on their past than to anticipate what lies ahead. They think about major life events, such as embarking on a new career, getting married, and raising children retrospectively, not prospectively. They are not, in short, the sorts of enrollees to whom higher education marketing programs are targeted.
Some might label this effort a waste of educational resources. After all, what will the students do with what they are learning? Will they use it to advance their careers, contribute tax revenue, or strengthen the U.S. position in the global marketplace? No, they are retired, the exact opposite of the undergraduates on whom colleges and universities typically lavish vast career counseling and placement services. They are not even preparing for graduate or professional school.
This critique could sharpen even further. What is the point of sharing the life of the mind with older adults? They will never put it to work starting a new business or community organization. They will not draw on it to make policy and probably never even share it with policymakers. Most will not even use it to educate the next generation since their children are already parents and grandparents. To put it starkly, any knowledge they gain will likely die with them sooner rather than later.
Yet, is higher education really so utilitarian an enterprise as this critique would suggest? To be sure, university leaders often go to great lengths to call attention to the dozens of new products and business ventures they have spawned, the thousands of jobs they have created, and the hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars their institutions contribute to the economy. They point, in other words, to the extrinsic value of education.
Teaching seniors brings to light other ends of education, some of a more intrinsic nature. Consider, for example, Aristotle’s account of human nature in his first philosophy, which opens with the observation that all humans naturally desire to know. We all know that young people love to learn. To become what they are meant to be, they must do so. But could this essential human longing persist throughout adulthood and even into later life?
What I have seen with the seniors convinces me that this is so. They do the readings not because they must but because they want to. They genuinely relish the opportunity to discuss them with others. Although advanced in years, they can be seen leaning forward into the conversation, fairly bursting with an idea or experience they want to share, their eyes shining. It is routine for the conversations that commence in the classroom to continue into the evening and even the following days.
Suppose we are the kinds of creatures who naturally desire to know. In that case, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the pursuit of knowledge, even wisdom, is a worthy activity, whether such understanding abides with us for 50 years, 5 years, or even five days. Perhaps being known is equally natural to the world we inhabit. Could it be that in coming to know it more deeply, we are somehow bringing it more fully into being, helping it fulfill its nature, even if but for a moment?
The seniors seem to know this, though they might not articulate it in precisely these terms. One said, “With almost daily field trips, film screenings, and art projects, we sometimes feel like first graders around here. Our book discussions show us that we can still learn, still use our minds, still grow and develop as human beings. I have lived here for many years, but this is the activity that has done more than any other to make me feel fully alive.”
The seniors may not walk as fast or jump as far as their younger counterparts, but they are model students. The word student comes from the Latin studiare, which is related to such ideas as eagerness, diligence, and even focus. They show up for one and only one reason: They are there to learn and are palpably eager to do so. What among the aged psychologists might describe as a diminished capacity for multi-tasking manifests as full and sustained immersion in conversation.
The most recent book we worked on was Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, and we devoted a session to each of its eight parts. We read of birth, childhood, education, courtship, marriage, work, fidelity and infidelity, childbirth, family life, sickness, suffering, and death. These accounts mean something different to students in their 80s than those in their 20s, and the seniors do not suffer by comparison. They are not anticipating most of these life events. They have known them firsthand.
As we discuss the courtship of Kitty and Levin, their engagement and marriage, the birth of their first child, and how Kitty tends to Levin’s dying brother, it is clear that the participants are revisiting their own versions of such experiences. And these encounters are spawning more than mere recollection. They are giving birth to new insights. Not infrequently, students find themselves in a reverie of sorts, tears welling up or smiles bursting forth, recognizing and discovering life anew.
Said one participant,
“Our readings and discussions are enriching our lives in so many ways. They provoke us to think about our careers, our families, and our communities in ways nothing else does. In some instances, we revisit unpleasant parts of our lives, filling us with shame and regret. But more often, they put us in touch with the things in life that have meant the most to us, and we are so grateful for the chance to reconnect and explore and savor them again.”
To be sure, education is not wasted on the young. Yet higher education should not be directed exclusively to under-30s. Teachers who share its bounty with seniors allow them to fulfill their natures and make discoveries of their own along the way. We learn that education is not primarily about course credits or college rankings but the sheer love of learning for its own sake. It is inspiring to experience education in one of its purest and best forms.