Survey: The Media Blackout on Aging
Ronni and Ron

Learning Forever / Forever Learning

Several years ago, I went to Palo Alto to discuss the possibility of taking a job there running a website. On the afternoon of the third and final day of meetings, I was with the CEO in his office and in searching for some notes in my bag, I pulled out the book I’d taken with me for hotel and airplane reading: a life of King David by Jonathan Kirsch.

The CEO riffled through the book, asked some questions and we talked about it for five minutes or so. Then he said, in a surprised tone of voice, “You’ve never stopped learning, have you?”

I was surprised that he was surprised and he, a European by birth and upbringing, said that it was his experience, in the United States, that few people showed much intellectual curiosity past college or beyond what is necessary for their work. I refrained from suggesting he find a new set of friends, but he was not entirely wrong.

There has always been an anti-intellectual streak in U.S. culture starting in grammar school. The smart kids were teased unmercifully, even shunned, as “brains” when I was a kid and some stopped raising their hands when they knew the answer to avoid the backlash.

When Adlai Stevenson ran for president on the Democratic ticket in 1952 and 1956, he was attacked by Eisenhower partisans as an “egghead.” The language has changed since then, but John Kerry suffered a bit from this attitude too in the 2004 presidential campaign.

As common as this bias is, it is worse in regard to old people. Too much of the public discourse on aging is dependent on two generally-held beliefs: that learning stops when formal education ends (which is applied to everyone) and older workers can’t and don’t learn new skills. But age discrimination based on faulty assumptions is far from my point.

Learning is a lifetime endeavor and there is hardly any effort to it. In fact, most of the time, it’s damned hard to avoid. Curiosity helps, and when someone knows something you’d like to know, all you need do is ask. People love to share their expertise. Other times, a well-selected book or two does the job.

Books Not long ago at a Sunday brunch, another guest, a first-time visitor to my friend's home, looked around and said, "Geez, have you read all these books?" It was an awkward moment until a wittier friend made a joke.

The question could well have been asked in my home and most of my friends' homes. The answer is yes, they have all been read - and re-read. I consult them when I need a piece of forgotten information or to rediscover the richness of thought of a good writer or to "merely" revisit a pleasurable reading experience.

Learning new things, as we get older, makes new neuronal connections in our brains, improves cognitive ability and keeps our minds fit. But that is only the practical. Learning, like listening to music, expands our perspective, lifts us out of the ordinariness of our lives and graces our spirits.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, the statesman and philosopher who lived during the period of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, knew a thing or two about the importance of lifelong learning:

“A room without books,” he said, “is like a body without a soul.”


Yes, let's keep on learning and discovering. That is the stuff of life!

That must be why I have such a fat soul.

Trying to stuff all those books in there.

Take Care

Thank you for this. It reminded me that I haven't been reading nearly enough lately.

Right on, Ronni. I get that comment all the time, as we keep our library in the living room. The other comment I get is the ironic "Geez, I've been all the way to Reidsville!" which is a town about an hour's drive from here. Implication: You intimidate me because you travel.

A day without reading is like a day without sunshine. ;)

If your not familiar with Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes (50 or so across the country and more coming), here's a link ( to ours in the DC suburbs. After a recent economics class, the professor said to me, "I'd kill to have students like these in my regular classes." The class catalog at the web site shows the variety and scope of classes we 600 students regularly oversubscribe.

Like my snack habits, my books are sometimes Hershey bars and popcorn. Others are fine wines and seven-course meals. Often, I am reading two or more books at the same time, one from the "snack" category, one from the "healthy food" category.

And Trish, my living room has three book cases - all full until this past weekend when I removed some of the moldier Hershey bars. Now, I eye those vacant places with gluttony - what tomes will I buy to fill the void?

Hey- I just discovered that you can spell fungi in two ways: mould or mold(the "u" being chiefly british). Which way do you spell it?

It would be interesting to ask your older bloggers (and commenters) what their current learning project is, to demonstrate how learning is ongoing, at any age. I think you'd get some interesting answers.

Nice challenge, ml--
My CURRENT learning projects:
(1) classroom classes concerning long-term care facilities [required to become a volunteer ombudsman for residents], (2) online course in Fracture Mechanics and Fatigue [from MIT Open Course Ware], (3) home study course "Introduction to Disaster Services" [video and text from American Red Cross], (4) self-taught knitting [a couple of books--working on a cape on circular needles--a first for me!], (5) CPR [I'm cheating--that was last week--American Red Cross]. In addition, the library says that I've checked out 101 books since May 1, 2004. Three of those books were abandoned after I had read enough to see that they weren't worth the time. [Just finished "The Great Influenza"--a great historical presentation on the pandemic of 1918-1920.]
Age 67.

I'm a big advocate for keeping the brain active and a vision I had for my own house was to have a library room. This won't come to pass just yet because I have other financial needs and books are so expensive. If it wasn't for libraries though, I'd be very much in debt.

Every house needs a library room... unfortunately ours doesn't have one, so 30 boxes of books live in the garage.... sigh....

I don't have a library nor do I need one (other than the public library). Unless they are good for reference (or belonged to my parents or grandparents), books are given away. I drained those suckers dry!

Hurray you for writing this! I consider myself a life-learner, and I cannot imagine an existence otherwise.

I am agree with you and I am practicing this:learning forever!

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