November 2015

Back to School – at All Ages


I’m taking a for-credit course at the University this semester. It’s my first time to be in such a structured learning environment since — well — possibly since before my classmates’ parents were born. Yes, I’m that old, and they’re that young.

By calling this course “structured”, I mean that it runs 12 weeks with lectures and reading assignments. There are papers to be written and grades to be gotten. I enjoy chatting with the young lady who sits next to me, though other students keep their distance. I guess I’m just an oddity to them.

Why is strange for a senior to take a class? Our government even provides a tuition waiver for us. I remember in the 1960s having classes with some older students. Of course, back then 35 seemed “older” to me.

A Chinese proverb says, “A single conversation with a wise man is better than ten years of study”. Calling me “wise” may be an overstatement, but I do think that the experience and perspective of older students can add to the conversation in a university course.

Over the years my commitment to learning has been fulfilled through other means: seminars, lectures, books, documentaries, research, workshops, and so on. I am motivated by curiosity as well as the desire to remain relevant. As Eric Hoffer wrote: “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who survive; the ‘learned’ find themselves fully equipped to live in a world that no longer exists”.

When Baha’u’llah proclaimed the principle of universal access to education in the mid-1800s, the very idea was almost inconceivable to many. Fortunately that is no longer the case, though it has not yet been achieved everywhere. The Baha’i Writings, in exploring the purpose of education, draws a connection among learning, personal development and spiritual maturity. As Abdul-Baha advised: “Discover for yourselves the reality of things . . . each must see with his own eyes, hear with his own ears and investigate independently in order that he may find the truth.” This tell us to think critically about what we read, hear or observe. Yet another quotation encourages applying our learning through action: “Knowledge is the first step; resolve, the second step; action, its fulfillment, is the third step.

As I sit in the lecture hall surrounded by 20-somethings, I wonder about their world and their future. I recall the idealism of my own younger years and how life has unfolded for me. I hope they take advantage of their access to education in its myriad forms to advance their personal and spiritual growth, to work productively in society, to explore a variety of cultures and peoples, to contribute to the body of knowledge, and to live with love, compassion and justice.

Maybe that’s a lot of expectation to put on a roomful of students about whom I really know so little. And yet, they are the future. They may be inheriting a world made messy by generations before them, but they have a chance to improve that world for generations that follow them.


© Jaellayna Palmer 2015