Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Generation Gap Gone Wild?

Thanks again to Ronni Bennett of http://www.timegoesby.net/, I just read a blog post written by a young college student. The author, Ann Austria, is a journalism major at California State University Long Beach. Here it is her post from the Orange County Register's web site:

Hey… Grandma??
May 17th, 2008, 9:45 pm

"I’ve noticed an increase in the number of elderly individuals in some of my general education classes. Not that I mind, but sometimes it gets excruciatingly annoying - no offense.

Take my math class, for example. I’m taking a math class called Math Ideas - it’s basically applying math to real-world situations, nothing that would require too much thinking. There are four elderly persons in that class, but there are two who sometimes don’t completely understand what’s going on - like the review of the Pythagorean Theorem.

There was also one time where the professor spent like a good twenty minutes trying to get one of them to understand the distributive property. This is the part of the class where I start banging my head on the table.

But this makes me wonder why a group of people, who look to be between fifty and sixty years old, are taking an undergraduate general education course. Did they get bored of retirement and just wanted something to do? Sounds like a plausible reason, but really, what are their motives for taking a class like this?"

As you can imagine, this article has stirred up a lot of vitriol and dismay in the elderblogging community. You can read some of the comments on Time Goes By. But here is my personal reaction, based on two experiences:

1. My late mother, Violet Marshall Funston, expected age discrimination when she returned for her last two years of college in her fifties, long after both my brother and I had finished not only college but graduate school. Here is what she wrote in her autobiography, "My First Eighty-Six Years: a Midwestern Life." (She graduated at 56 and went on to live to age 95).

"At first the younger students resented me. . . . When [they] found out that I was taking a full course load, they accepted me. I made many friends among the younger students."
This happened in the 1960's, when the idea of lifelong learning probably hadn't occurred to many people yet. My mother's attitude shows an understanding of the situation, but she also was able to cope. She always could. She may have helped bring about a bit of inter-generatonal understanding in her own modest way.

2. Last year, I attended the BlogHer conference here in Chicago. I was one of the oldest attendees, and I felt slightly out of place among the "Mommy Bloggers," budding entrepreneurs, etc. However, I eventually worked up the courage to speak up at one of the sessions about my enthusiasm for blogging, and several young women approached me warmly. One even said something like, "I admire you so much; I love your blog's title (Never too Late!)."

What does all of this prove? It's easy to make fun of Ms. Austria and her disdain for students "who look to be between fifty and sixty years old," but I suspect that I might have held a similar attitude when I was in college. I know that neither my brother nor I thought much of our mother's educational quest. We came to admire her very much for finishing college and going on to a teaching career.

Perhaps this antagonism between young and old is and always has been a natural phenomenon, but I see gradual signs of improvement. We elders are becoming fans of lifelong learning, and an enlightened few younger people are devoted to helping us. Ms. Austria's attitude will undoubtedly change as she gets older and more experienced.

Perhaps the best result of this controversy is that all of us elders will develop the courage to follow our passions, in college or out. We can speak up and show the young that we are not all "over the hill." Racism, Sexism and Ageism belong in the same discard bin.

Copyright 2008 by Marlys Marshall Styne

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