Obviously, one thing that everyone who is entering the second half of life has in common is that we were all, at some point in our lives, in our first half. Ironically, all the time we spent in those years is no guarantee that we'll have any great insight into the experience of them—especially when it comes to imaginatively conceiving of the experience of others. Getting older, in other words, is not necessarily very good preparation for understanding and connecting with the young. Dave knows this well. He was teaching a philosophy class at an alternative high school called Nova. He says:
It was a fairly mortifying experience in many ways, just like my own high school years. But I learned something very important in the process.
This high school didn't require the students to attend classes; they could go or not go to class as long as they completed the required assignments according to a contract they had developed for the class. So, I never knew whether I would have any students when I showed up to teach.
The school had a central meeting area, a kind of lounge where students would congregate and decide whether to head off to class. I would arrive and be obliged to entice the students in my class to leave their friends and come to our classroom. This was the part that felt like my own high school experience: I had to be interesting and funny enough to get the cool kids to talk to me. If I was—and this was often a challenge when we were scheduled to discuss some rather esoteric aspect of the philosophical canon—then I'd be able to pull together a class. If not, then I'd hang around feeling embarrassed until the class period was over, at which point I could go home and lick my wound by writing a required assignment for the college classes I was teaching at the university.
The first three or four times I went to Nova, it was pretty much a disaster. I tried holding forth about the philosophical topic we were scheduled to discuss. A few kids might show some interest, but as soon as I began presenting the "official" view on the subject from philosophical experts like Descartes or Kant or Plato, their interest and attention immediately waned, and I was left sitting on the couch in the lounge, just me and my Classics of Western Philosophy text.
One day, though, after I'd been going to Nova about a month (my class met just once a week), I arrived to find the students in an extremely animated conversation about a protest against the World Trade Organization's upcoming meeting in Seattle. I was fascinated both by the students' ardor for the subject and their fairly high level of familiarity with the issues. So, instead of trying to lead the students away into a discussion of what I was interested in, I joined into their conversation. Instead of positioning myself as an "outside expert," I came as an equal participant.
In the course of our ensuing conversation, though, I had a number of opportunities to contribute philosophical perspectives that the students weren't at all familiar with. I actually was able to cover a good deal of the material I had intended to explore that day. But it emerged out of the passions and questions of the students, as opposed to the pre-set agenda of what I thought they should be studying.
From that day on, I never came to Nova with a set agenda. I had lesson plans, sure, but I modified them on the spot depending on what the kids wanted to talk about. They came to be pretty interested in the material we were exploring and we managed to cover just about everything on my syllabus, but we did so in a manner that was driven by their interests, not mine.
What I learned from this was that if I wanted to engage these young people, I had to start from where they were. Eventually, they might come to be curious about the material I hoped to explore, but that wouldn't happen by my announcing it. If the philosophy wasn't relevant to them, they would reject it. But if they found that it had some value to their own lives, they ate it up. They sought out my knowledge and were eager to have me help them understand the material more fully. But it had to be on their terms, otherwise the project was doomed to—if not failure—at least my unending embarrassment.
Dave's experience can be a reminder to all of us who, as new elders, seek to engage young people in any sort of enterprise. Too often, we forget that the so-called wisdom we have to offer won't be appreciated as such unless it makes a difference in people's lives. All our experience in the world means little to others if it doesn't relate to what they care about. From the perspective of youth, there are lots of crazy old people who talk to themselves about the past; there are far fewer new elders who engage them in issues relevant to the present.
The challenge, then, is to stay connected to the historical sources of our own wisdom while simultaneously remaining in touch with the current and future concerns facing young people in the world. This can be difficult to do, but the good news is, if we remain attuned to the indicators, we will receive much of the guidance we need to succeed. They're out there, we just have to learn, as do the Hadza with the Honey Guide, how to look.