The original plan was to blog about my goals for the summer, but I bring to you an important message on ageism instead!
Ageism: stereotyping and discriminating against individuals or groups on the basis of their age. (Wikipedia)
Yesterday, someone questioned my ability to learn a new concept because of my age.
The person who made this remark is someone I’ve known for the past year or so and have met several times. It’s not like this was just some random person on the street. They’re a fellow computer science student (traditionally aged) at Queen’s — in fact, normally we agree on many things, like combating prejudice in the tech field.
Anyway, they were trying to teach me the difference between functional and imperative programming. I didn’t catch on and asked a question to clarify.
They replied, “This would probably be easier for you to learn if you were younger.”
(Sidenote: I am always suspicious of a teacher who blames their student’s inability to learn instead of examining their own teaching practice.)
The real surprise here is that I hadn’t encountered overt ageism until yesterday, even if this particular example of ageism was small and kind of hilarious instead of tragic. I can’t control what other people think about my decrepit age, but to any mature student reading this, I’ve got a message for you:
Don’t believe the haters. Believe in yourself!
Age-related cognitive decline is a lot more complicated than the media (and 20-year-old comp sci students) would have you think.
For example, check out “The Role of Aging in Adult Learning” by David L. Crawford at the Johns Hopkins School of Education:
Using a longitudinal study over a period of several decades, Schaie (1994) noted that scores on primary mental abilities improved gradually until about age forty at which time the abilities tend to stabilize until approximately age sixty. The decreases are small until the mid seventies at which time scores are usually measurably lower than they were in the mid twenties. Therefore, when a composite measure of mental abilities is used, learning ability does not decrease until the sixth or even seventh decade for most individuals. The significance of this seminal study seems to be that noticeable overall mental decline in the primary abilities does not generally occur until later in life.
We don’t have to start worrying until our mid-70s!
And while I haven’t read Timothy A. Salthouse’s Major Issues in Cognitive Aging, it’s now on my to-read list because of this lovely quotation (found in Amanda Enayati’s “The aging brain: Why getting older just might be awesome”):
Although there is no shortage of opinions about cognitive aging, it sometimes seems that relatively few of the claims are based on well-established empirical evidence … assertions about cognitive aging may be influenced as much by the authors’ preconceptions and attitudes as by systematic evaluations of empirical research.
In her article, Enayati summarizes Salthouse’s points: “[He] goes on to make two more significant observations about cognitive aging: Discoveries of decline in the laboratory do not necessarily correlate to success out in the real world, and there is often considerable variation among different people of the same age.”
Look, even if this myth of significant cognitive decline starting, apparently, in our early twenties was true (which it isn’t!), does it even matter? I believe our life experience, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and sense of perspective grant us more than enough wisdom so that, on balance, we are going to do just fine.
So don’t let the haters get you down — even if it’s just a silly little throwaway comment over coffee. Don’t believe a word of it. If you’re on the fence right now and wondering if you’re too old to go back to school — well, take it from me: You are never too old to learn! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
And if anyone does tell you otherwise, the correct response is always, “Yeah, imagine how much smarter I’d be than you if I were your age!”
Then you can listen to some sassy Lily Allen to get you back in the right frame of mind.