Intergenerational Learning

David Clemens

  • Article
  • January 06, 2010

Last fall I convened a panel on Great Books for the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics.  One panelist, Joshua Cohen, Assistant Professor of Literature at the Massachusetts College of Art, offered his eloquent “In Praise of Older Students.”  While many classrooms today display racial and ethnic diversity, not many enjoy the benefits of older students.  As Professor Cohen put it, a class has a “different sense of balance when people preparing for adult life are brought into contact with people that have lived it.” Writing about Princeton students, I recall David Brooks observing that “the world they live in seems fundamentally just. If you work hard, behave pleasantly, explore your interests, volunteer your time, obey the codes of political correctness, and take the right pills to balance your brain chemistry, you will be rewarded with a wonderful ascent in the social hierarchy.”  Professor Alvin Kernan once remarked that his own students at Princeton displayed “curiously flat” responses to everything he presented because “they have never encountered an insurmountable obstacle.”   Their privileged, pre-Ivy League lives were shaped since birth by music lessons, athletic training, Baby Mozart—supervision and reward, student government and foreign language, the “right” schools, appropriate community service, and so on. Rather than flat, the responses of older students are fully-rounded by the perspectives of experience:  loss, struggle, hindsight, aging, regret, illness, sacrifice, failure, compromise, maturity, endurance, and redemption.  For this reason, Professor Cohen advocates “intergenerational learning,” and he concluded by suggesting that there is

“no better forum for learning together than the study of great books. These are our chronicles, our testaments, our songs of innocence and experience. When we read them we hold a mirror to our lives. But when we read them together, we see our reflected images transformed into reflections of each other’s lives.”
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