Bridging the Classroom Generation Gap

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, March 17, 2006

The great thing about having older students in your classroom is that they talk. The real drag about having older students in your classroom is that, well, they talk.

At the private college I attended as an undergraduate, there were few “nontraditional” students. Today at such campuses, kids still sometimes take a year off before college, sometimes a year during. But the age range tends to be about as wide as a Desperate Housewives butt. It’s a different story at public universities. People come back to college for a host of reasons—after military service, after raising a family, after hitting the trail in Nepal, after going out into the real world and discovering that, in lots of ways, the real world isn’t much fun. They come back with a full arsenal of experience and ideas; they come into the classroom armed and ready.

I was one of them. After a career in scholarly publishing, I decided to become a doctor. Taking the undergraduate science courses I’d so studiously avoided in college, I quickly realized that I didn’t want to learn the way the younger, traditional students did. I had all sorts of excited, tangential questions about everything I studied.

My fellow students—mostly younger—wanted to know what was going to be on the test.

I noticed that the people who were brazen enough to raise their hands in large lectures were almost always, like me, nontraditional students. For a variety of reasons, ultimately I decided not to go to medical school. Now, another decade down the road, I am studying writing at a state university with a healthy cohort of nontraditional students. And I’m teaching them. I’ve been in class with married students, pregnant students, and students who are on their third careers. I’ve taught grandmothers, bartenders, and Ph.D.’s.

Even in required courses, like English Composition 101, my nontraditional students are there because they want to be there. They tend to care less about grades than their younger peers do—though they want to do well—and more about gaining a deeper understanding of how to make their work better. They appreciate the value of their tuition dollars and want to make every cent count. They do the reading, speak up in class, and ask me to lunch. Life knowledge can be valuable currency that enriches classroom discussions: Talking about the war in Iraq is different in the presence of a veteran.

But returning students can also disrupt a dynamic, hijack a conversation. With their deep wells of experience, it takes only a little priming before memories, ideas, and opinions come spilling out all over the place. Bearing witness to one’s own life can become a side effect of aging. (Reading essays about the 60s, for example, can provoke long remembrances of drug trips past or rambling tirades against Richard Nixon.)

Nontraditional students also come burdened with the maladies of the quotidian: work, mortgages, families. Missing class or a deadline because of a sick child is often unavoidable, certainly understandable, but it can cause seething resentment in those who have stayed up all night to finish a paper or prepare for class.

When I recently asked my first-year honors students, all of whom had come directly to college from high school, about their experiences in classes with nontraditional students, they had a lot to say. They expressed admiration for the folks who came back to school—saw them as “slightly heroic” and “brave.” They recognized the benefits of maturity.

At least in theory.

Then came the litany of complaints: Older students are arrogant. They are insecure. They are set in their ways and stuck with entrenched ideas. They are eager. Too eager. Many older students, my 18-year-olds said, sit in the front of the classroom and answer every question, or challenge the teacher, or speak to show off their own superior knowledge.

One of my students said that he thought returning students should have to take a class called “Forget All That Stupid Stuff You Are So Damned Sure You Know.” If the older students can pass that class, he said, they should be admitted to college again. An English major wished that the “nontrads” would just raise their hands and tell their stories—say why they are in college. Get it out of the way, so everyone could get on with the class.

On the other side, when I talk with older students, they are understandably bored hearing stories of great feats of drinking and throwing up; weary of complaints about how busy dorm-living, cafeteria-dining kids are. They try to restrain themselves when those kids say silly or naïve things in class—though sometimes they’ll shoot me a look.

Like all forms of segregation, this intergenerational schism is based on resentment, petty competition, and lack of cross-cultural understanding. And like all forms of integration, the admixture of young and old can be a crucible for richness and growth, with all parties benefiting. As one of my students told me: “Younger students bring idealism with a lack of enthusiasm for school, while older students bring realism with a greater enthusiasm for what younger students perceive as boring lectures.”

College, as we know, is as much about students’ learning from each other outside the classroom as it is about being taught by professors. Young students can benefit from unloading on an elder who is neither parent nor teacher. People my age are weary; being around those who are full of energy and passion can be better than Botox.

But in practice in the classroom, self-segregation by age seems to be the norm. Grown-ups who are used to being in charge have a hard time shutting up and learning to listen to people their children’s ages. And younger students often don’t want to challenge directly those who speak with the authority that often comes with gray hair, although they sometimes look for adolescent ways to punish their elders (like whispering snide comments under their breath).

Last semester I got an e-mail message from a young English 101 student. She was dropping out of school. “Alice” reminded me that I had told my students that, if they didn’t really want to be in school, they might consider taking some time off and coming back later. Otherwise, I had argued, college could be a big, fat waste of time and money. Alice would definitely come back, she said, but she knew that she wasn’t yet ready. Whether it takes her one year or 20, the next time she enters a classroom, Alice will, I know, contribute to discussions with a strong, clear voice. My hope is that she will remember her experience last spring and reach out to students who may be less ready to be in the classroom; that she will share with her younger classmates what she learned in her time away, so that they will be able to hear her and appreciate her experience.