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EDUCATION AND SOCIETY: A Portrait of The Student As an Old Man


A Portrait of The Student As an Old Man
by John Ohliger
October 24, 1988

Woody Allen says, "It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens." Though the most popular motto among adult educators is "Learning Never Ends," dying does tend at least to punctuate the process. Said Sherlock Holmes to Watson, "Education never ends. It is a series of lessons with the greatest for the last."

Those were a few of the thoughtlets that ran through my mind when recently I received a long letter with an enclosure from my old (and I do mean old) friend Irv Thomas. Irv decided a couple years ago to go back to college at the age of 60, about the time I reached that golden age. Since then we've been corresponding about his experience.

Until the most recent letter, he's been ecstatic about it. So-called mature students now constitute the fastest growing percentage in higher education. And Irv was reaping the benefits of the attention to this age group that is providing life saving dollars to economically beleaguered colleges.

But mature students are classified as anyone over 25-years-old and Irv has now discovered that there is a vast difference in the way someone close to the age of 26 looks at college life and the way someone 60 experiences it. Yet everyone over 25 is lumped together as a "returning adult student" by these institutions.

Age Is Not The Gauge


The vast differences came home to Irv most vividly in a class he took on "Death and Dying." The enclosure he sent was his "take home" final examination. Irv begins by noting that being 60 means "the closer approach of one's own death." Not only his own death but the fact that reaching that age he had experienced the death of others close to him and those "personality icons -- Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth, and so forth."

In writing the final, he became aware that his very return to school was tied up with his feelings about death: "It is an assertive effort to respond to the sense that one's very world is in the process of dying."

Irv's final subtly deals with many of the problems a really old student must face, not those presented to someone called an older student who is in his or her late 20s, 30s, or even 40s.

His conclusion points to the importance of freeing students from oversimplified age-related expectations and raises the question in my own mind of whether colleges are capable of being useful to this diverse range of ages. The higher education system reinforces the myth that everyone under 25 is different from everyone over that age and misses the chance to open up pathways to understanding that dialogue among different age groups brings.

Irv says he now has "a much richer palette of views" about the experience of returning to college at age 60 and notes that "because it is a system geared to the one-way transmission of knowledge rather than a dialogue between levels of knowledge, there is intense pressure for conformity."

Irv Thomas has given me permission to offer ACET readers a copy of his final with portions of his letter. If you want this provocative nine page paper, mail one dollar to Basic Choices/Old.

John Ohliger is the editor of THE 1989 ADULT EDUCATOR'S ALMANAC to be published soon by LERN and Basic Choices, Inc.

LERN has granted non-exclusive permission to this website to post any articles written by John Ohliger for Adult and Continuing Education Today.


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