Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Lifelong learning

Q: For years, we were told that human brains peaked in their 20s, and then came a slow, downhill slide. But a new book ("The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain") says that researchers, thanks to high-tech brain imaging, are proving that's all wrong. In fact, we get smarter, calmer and happier in middle age, defined as lasting into the 60s. Has this been your experience? Are there aspects of age that are far more positive than you expected?

"Education is wasted on the young." So goes one curmudgeonly view of the human capacity to learn. Of course, I do not subscribe to that viewpoint -- I'd be out of a job! On the other hand, as we have come to know at Trinity, "lifelong learning" is where the real action is today in higher education.

Appreciating the true capacity of human beings to stay intellectually engaged and highly productive throughout the lifespan is a vital part of rethinking old social norms about learning, creativity, work and retirement. The old theory of brainpower -- that our brains peak in our 20s and decline thereafter -- is about as outmoded as the belief that we are all doddering toward the grave at age 60 and must stop work by 65.

If 60 is the "new 30" as some of my friends are saying, then, in fact, our brain capacity truly does continue to expand well into our middle years. Whether based in real science or simple observation, it's true that human beings, physiologically in this nation at least, are enjoying longer and more vital lifespans, including more active creative years well past the traditional retirement age.

80 is the "new 50," as we can see in the ongoing careers of Clint Eastwood, Charles Rangel, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Sean Connery, Warren Buffett, Barbara Walters, Elie Wiesel and many other intellectually and socially active octogenerian celebrities today.

One of the more fascinating bits of sociology I get to observe as a college president is the phenomenon we call "Alumnae Reunion" that brings graduates back to campus on a five-year cycle throughout their lives. While it's true that, the older I get, the younger they seem, in fact, over a span of nearly 40 years that I've had the opportunity to observe reunions at Trinity (since my student worker days), I've seen tremendous change in the intellectual and physical vitality of classes returning for their 50th-55th-60th reunions.

At one time, the 50th class reunion was the end of the line, the oldest of the old, and almost no alum was able to return for the 55th. This year, we had a large group back for the 65th reunion, and in some years we have alums enjoying the 70th reunion, well into their 90's.

With the elongation of our active and productive lifespan clearly apparent to lawmakers, members of Congress have flirted with the idea of moving back the traditional age of retirement -- 65 -- to 70 for rising generations as a strategy to ease the stress on the Social Security system. Beyond talk, however, few politicians have the willpower to vote in favor of this proposal since they would run into powerful opposition from the rising generations who still plan to retire in their early 60s in order to take greater advantage of a longer period of active, creative and healthy living without the pressures of traditional work.

With more people enjoying more free time in still-productive years, the nation actually has an opportunity to encourage more creative works, more invention, writing, arts, and music produced by people in their older life stages. Rather than encouraging more retirees to play slots at newly authorized casinos, perhaps the states could invest more in centers for creative work by older citizens whose productivity could add a great deal to the intellectual capital of the community.

Colleges and universities today welcome and encourage older learners, those who are just starting out in higher education and those who return for enrichment. Some colleges have even developed retirement communities on campus. More often, however, colleges provide programs tailored for the ongoing interests of students across the lifespan. With more than 40 percent of all students enrolled in college now over the age of 25, lifelong learning is big business.

Much as I've enjoyed each life stage, I would never want to be 30 again...or 20 or 16. I'm not even sure about repeating fortysomething. I have found a level of satisfaction and contentment in my 50's that has made this a most enjoyable period of my life. I'm less anxious about proving myself and more likely to accept rough patches as simply life's little moments -- and I'm also a lot more savvy abut how to manage the occasional setbacks.

Of course, I could never pull an "all-nighter" again. But, then again, I'm mature enough now to get my homework done on time! I've got an entire list of great books I want to re-read at some point -- I just wish I could remember where I put it! Probably wherever my glasses and car keys are resting ...

By Patricia McGuire  |  August 23, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Success and age Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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