For many years there was an assumption that learning is what children do – libraries had plenty of material about child development and education, but relatively little on adult education. Then along came the ‘lifelong learning movement’ which argued that we need to stop associating learning with children and recognise that everyone has the potential to keep learning and to keep benefiting from that learning throughout our lives.
However, it is unfortunately the case that the ageist assumptions that are so firmly embedded in our society often mean that it can so easily be forgotten that this applies to older people just the same as it does to anyone else. The idea that ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is not borne out by the evidence (consider, for example, the success of the Open University in working successfully with learners right across the adult age spectrum). Older people can not only continue to grow and develop, but also thereby stand as excellent sources of learning for everybody else.
The problem partly stems from the work of Freud, as he assumed that the main part of human development takes place in the first five years of life. While these early ‘formative’ years are clearly extremely important, it would be a mistake – and a serious one at that – to assume that we are fully formed by the age of five. There is no shortage of evidence that we continue to develop throughout our lives – indeed, life can be understood to be that very process of development itself. The idea that ‘learning is for the young’ is therefore a dangerously misleading one, and one that can be unnecessarily obstructive and disempowering. The old idea that education is wasted on the young has some degree of merit, as it is often the case that people returning to education later in life do much better than they did first time round. I have met very many people who flourished at university, even though they may have struggled at school years before.
And this doesn’t just apply to intellectual learning, of course. Emotional growth and learning are lifelong phenomena too. Indeed, the older we get and the more we come under pressure to face our own mortality, the more emotional challenges we will face. It would be naïve to think that we would ever reach a stage in life where there are no more such challenges to contend with – and every such challenge brings opportunities for personal growth and development. The more life experience we have, the more raw materials we have from which to learn and grow.
In my career I have also worked with many people who have been struggling with depression and have felt that they were ‘stuck’, as if emotionally paralysed. Helping them to get past this and to get them learning and growing again has brought me a lot of job satisfaction over the years. Seeing that ‘spark’ come back is an incredible sight. Depression is a complex matter, but the sense of no longer growing or developing is often, if not always, a part of it.
So, if your work, or indeed your private life, brings you into contact with older people, don’t make the mistake of assuming that lifelong learning does not apply to them. Likewise, don’t assume that once you reach a certain age you can forget about learning and growing. Lifelong learning means precisely that – lifelong. Don’t let anyone (or any misguided ideas) tell you any different. Personal growth, development and learning are far too important to allow that to happen.