These students don’t learn from textbooks or lectures. They learn from each other.
Several classmates meet for an early dinner and are deep in discussion when the conversation turns quickly to careers. “When I graduated from college, I was told the only thing I could do was answer phones,” says 78-year-old Mary Ann Bendel.
Twenty-two-year-old Valeria Garcia ’14 nods as Bendel tells her what it was like to be a woman in the workforce in the late 1950s and early 1960s, having to choose between marriage and work, and the other twists, turns, and trade-offs she faced before landing a successful career in TV journalism, interviewing everyone from the Dalai Lama to Gloria Steinem.
Garcia and Bendel are enrolled in “Generation to Generation,” a semester-long psychology course where half of the students are in their 20s, and the other half are in their 70s and 80s.
Over the course of the semester, they tackle topics that are both personal and political, from sex and gun control to health care, and even what makes life worth living. It’s good, old-fashioned conversation—the kind that moves you, gives you pause, and, sometimes, teaches you.
“Generation” is the brainchild of USF’s Lisa Wagner, an associate professor of psychology. She’s taught the class on and off for about a decade and had students as young as 18 and as old as 93.
Wagner believes this gulf in age—and experience—offers a unique opportunity for both the young and old to learn from each other. She’s had students who marched in civil rights-era protests and others who weren’t old enough to vote when Barack Obama was elected the country’s first African-American president.
“Generation” is co-sponsored by USF and the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning. The Fromm Institute is located on USF’s Hilltop Campus and offers dozens of courses every semester for retired adults over 50, who call themselves “Frommies.” The institute’s concept of offering non-credit courses to older adults was a radical concept when it opened in 1976, but the model was so successful it has spread nationwide.
One of Wagner’s goals with “Generation” is to bring together young and old at a time when it’s gotten easier not to interact. American society has become increasingly age segregated, and the number of households with three or more generations has steadily declined since the 1950s.
“What we’re finding across the country is that we’re losing connections to our elders,” Wagner says. “If we lose connections with our history, then how are we able to move forward? And if we lose connections to our youth, then how do we know that we, as a society, are going to move forward in meaningful ways?”
A number of factors make connecting across generations increasingly difficult. There’s stereotyping in both directions: The young are lazy and entitled, and the old are close-minded, conservative, and fragile. There’s also a fixation on staying young and beautiful forever and a fear of aging that is deeply ingrained in mainstream culture.
“We never hear about the positives that come with aging,” says 21-year-old Sienna Williams ’15. “When that’s the only frame of reference we have, old age is something we don’t want to get to, and we’re not going to want to interact with people who are older.”
Seventy-two-year-old Jim Galvin says society’s judgment on the elderly is harsh. “I think the assumption in our society is older people are done and need to move on,” he says. “We need to be on another planet, or under the ground.”
Bringing together young and old is only half the battle. The tricky part is getting them to sit down as equals, and that’s the foundation of Wagner’s class. She designed it based on psychologist Gordon Allport’s contact theory that the key to reducing prejudice of any kind is friendly, informal engagement between equals.
But engaging as equals is far from the norm.
“In my family, there’s a lot of respect toward older adults, but there isn’t a lot of conversation,” says 21-year-old Stephanie Rodriguez ’14. “That’s just the way it is.”
Wagner hears about this dynamic a lot from younger students. In fact, they often tell her at the end of the semester that they know the Frommies better than their own grandparents.
“What they realized is that the interaction styles between their grandparents and them had followed the stereotypical pattern of the grandparents asking them questions, but them never asking their grandparents questions,” says Wagner. “And so that’s one of the things we talk about—the importance of breaking that habit and starting to ask questions.”
Every week, Wagner assigns students a newspaper or magazine article to read on a topic that offers rich material for intergenerational discussion. “We’re not talking about areas that different people have different levels of expertise in,” she says.
“We’re talking about an article that everyone has read, so all students come in on equal footing.”
She divides the students into groups, usually two older and two younger, and the discussion begins.
Today’s reading is from The New York Times: “The Importance of the Afterlife. Seriously.” Philosophy and law professor Samuel Scheffler writes that the belief that humanity will continue long after we’re gone “plays an extremely important role in our lives, quietly but critically shaping our values, commitments and sense of what is worth doing.”
In their small groups, students talk about the difference between living for themselves and living for others, and wrestle with the discussion questions Wagner has handed out, for instance: If you believed the end was near, how would it affect how you live?
Things get personal when 69-year-old Barry Krantz talks about his aunt and her battle with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and 22-year-old Garcia talks about her pastor’s wife, who gave birth to a stillborn baby. “People in the class cried, had glassy eyes, and really had a lump in their throat,” says Krantz.
At the outset, they expect awkward silences and disagreements. But that’s not what they find.
“I was surprised by the absence of conflict,” says Galvin. “We share a lot of the same attitudes.” But, he admits, the students are a self-selecting group, living in one of the most liberal cities in the country. “They’re people who are looking for this reach across generations.”
Wagner also asks her students to take two field trips in their small groups. They’ve walked Crissy Field, visited the sea lions off Pier 39, explored the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, and had dinner at each other’s homes.
Each group gets something from engaging with the other. The undergraduates get perspective, advice, and stories about growing up in a world that is alien to their own, like not being allowed to wear pants to school as a woman, or getting a ‘B’ in biology because an ‘A’ was reserved for boys. “It’s so wonderful to put historical events in a social and personal context,” says Williams. “That’s what the Fromm students are able to offer us.”
Fromm students also love the class. They get a window into a different mindset and an energy that comes simply from being around youth.
“It’s very easy at my age to end up in a bit of an age-based ghetto,” says Galvin. “This is a really nice relief from it.”
About the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning
The Fromm Institute offers college-level, non-credit classes in the arts, humanities, and sciences for retired adults over the age of 50. Founded in 1976 by San Francisco philanthropists Hanna and Alfred Fromm, it was one of the first of its kind in the nation and has served as a model for more than 120 other universities.
About 600 students a day take classes like Great American Choreographers, Concealed Biblical Narratives, and The Civil War in Retrospect. The average age of a Fromm student is 71, and students as old as 97 have enrolled. The institute offers three eight-week sessions per year and about 30 classes per session.
The Fromm Institute is an independent nonprofit. It established a permanent home on USF’s Hilltop Campus in 2003, following a $10 million capital campaign led by Hanna Fromm.
“I take the class to be around young people,” says Bendel. “They get a bad rap sometimes. People say they’re selfish and don’t care, but they’re terrific and they’re so alive.” She hopes to take “Generation” again.
Bendel’s comments aren’t unusual. Student feedback is overwhelmingly positive, and other universities hope to replicate the class model. After giving an overview of the program at the Gerontological Society of America conference in 2012, Wagner was flooded with interest.
Stephanie Rodriguez, who took the class last year, had planned to minor in child and youth studies when she first entered USF. But after taking “Generation,” she learned something important about herself and switched her minor to gerontology. “My calling is working with older adults,” says Rodriguez, who is now Wagner’s research assistant.
But perhaps the deepest impact of the class is the simple realization among students that even as the world changes, people are people.
“If you think about how different life is today, it is hard to say that life produces the same type of people that it did before,” wrote one student in an evaluation. “And yet, here is proof that it does. I find that amazing.”