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How to Become an Elder

How to Become an Elder
By Renée Fuller

The front benches of our Quaker Meeting House were slowly filling up. Gradually all the familiar faces were there; the ladies with their white hair lightly blued to perfection, the gentlemen with their stiff starched collars and faces pink from this morning’s careful shave. They were our elders. Theirs was the responsibility of guiding our Society. It was a responsibility that had become the tradition of older and mature members for hundreds of years. And it was taken very seriously.

Being a child I was unaware of the details of elder responsibility with one important exception. The exception reflected the consensus of the members of the front benches and was called “being eldered”. It happened when a younger member of our community needed help or had done something “unwise” – something that was causing pain or trouble to themselves or others. On those occasions, after a meeting of the elders, an understanding would be reached. The help that was needed would be quietly extended, or one of the elders would agree to speak to the transgressor. To admonish them? No, admonish sounds too harsh. For such eldering was done very gently and usually with considerable skill.

It was explained to me as a young teenager that that’s how eldering would have to be done – quietly and with understanding. And as I grew older, experience would teach me that “successful human interactions” required a multitude of skills learned over a lifetime. I too would learn the pointlessness of humiliating, of offending; would understand the lack of wisdom in blurting out disapproval, the way youngsters do. “Successful human interaction” would be a gradual learning process, requiring years to mature. On reaching that maturity, I too would finally become an elder.

Most of the elders on our front benches had seen their parents and sometimes grandparents in the role that was now theirs. They had experienced as children and later as young adults what worked, what were the times when it was wise to intervene, and how. And also when it was wise to wait; when to say or do nothing. They had become adept at “successful human interaction,” at running not only our Society of Friends, but also other organizations, including their own successful businesses.

I had always thought that “successful human interaction,” those understandings about the world around us, was learned by seeing what worked, what did not, and that that was all there was to it. Isn’t that how other animals learn? Isn’t that what makes the older fish so much cleverer at avoiding and escaping lures than the less wily youngsters? Psychologists refer to the acquisition of such tacit knowledge as implicit learning.

We have all experienced the importance of implicit learning, which leads to tacit knowledge. It’s the things we know about, or know how to do, that are often hard to put into words because we’re not really cognizant of how and what it is we know and why. Tacit knowledge is often called gut knowledge. And as we get older some of us get really good at these intuitive understandings. The elders of my childhood sitting on those front benches had acquired a great deal of tacit knowledge.

Like most children, I had personally experienced an increase in my own tacit knowledge, although not knowing that that’s what it’s called. And I believed there wasn’t more to becoming an elder than the worldly knowledge that is absorbed during a lifetime. But then years later, my research as a psychologist gave me an insight into what can be achieved through that other, contrasting, aspect of human learning, the one that psychologists label explicit learning. Explicit learning requires conscious awareness. That means you are cognizant of how and what it is you know.

Like tacit knowledge, explicit knowledge also matures and becomes more knowing as we age. However, an additional capability, which is lacking in the wily old fish or even the silverback gorilla, has evolved in us humans. It is a capability that greatly expands the possibilities of explicit learning: language. Or more accurately, it is what language can do for us, and what we can do with language.

Whereas tacit knowledge is knowledge without conscious awareness, by using language we not only bring into consciousness our observations, we can open them up to analysis. Language, which initially arose as a simple communication device, developed during human evolution into an advanced cognitive tool, which that allows us to examine the ramification and implications of our experiences. These insights can then be imparted to others, but perhaps even more important they can be revealed to ourselves.

Such self-communication is the quintessential manifestation of what language can do; it helps us think thoughts that would have been out of our reach without it, giving us a greater understanding of our world. The use of words in order to think and to exchange thoughts with others has added a vastly expanded dimension that continues to develop and flourish over a lifetime.

Quite incidentally, my own research has shown how, by increasing linguistic competence, we can bring into consciousness tacit knowledge that had previously been closed to analytical reasoning.

The capabilities of what language can do for us were further expanded with the advent of that greatest of all human inventions – written communication. Subsequent to this innovation humankind experienced a dramatic growth in linguistic competence and analytical reasoning. For literacy not only increases cultural accumulations and transmissions, it has the additional capability of assisting systematic analysis; thereby further expanding our capacity to think, to communicate, as well as pass on this newly acquired knowledge to future generations.

Utilizing developmental linguistics, the system initially builds its story (ideas) in simple units composed primarily with just a noun and its verb. Only after the beginning phase of reading has been mastered are the more complicated parts of speech introduced. In this way the system mirrors language acquisition in children and thereby surreptitiously teaches how to structure, how to actually build ideas.

The data showed that students taught in this way were eager to write on their own, mimicking the idea-building procedure. In the process they acquired vocabulary and language skills far beyond IQ and mental age expectations. Unexpected and unintended as these results were, even more indicative was what the various age groups did with the vocabulary and language skills they had acquired. While youngsters of all IQ levels were now able to describe their surroundings, middle aged and older students did much more than merely depict the world around them. They drew thoughtful conclusions; demonstrating mature understandings of what they had seen and experienced; conclusions that had been out of their reach prior to literacy.

Because the essence of a story (an idea) can be conveyed with just a noun and a verb, I called this basic idea unit a simple story engram. In psychology, engram refers to a fundamental memory element. A story engram therefore describes a fundamental idea concept. By adding the more complicated parts of speech to a simple story engram an elaborated story engram is created. Ever bigger and more complicated concepts and stories can be built by linking together simple and elaborated story engrams. These can then be summarized by an overarching story engram popularly referred to as a headline or a sound bite – expressing meaning in a nutshell. The eldering I observed as a youngster required story engram understandings that had been honed by decades of experience, creating conscious knowledge that could then be skillfully used in “successful human interactions.”

Those fond memories of the elders on the front benches go back more than half a century. The time has now come for me to be an elder. But things have changed. Youth culture has taken over our planet and swept us into the 21st century. Rather than being an elder, I am labeled a senior citizen. Our present-day community has a Senior Center run by a charming young mother who is allowed to bring her children to work. She uses the same loving, and oh so understanding, a tone on us as she does on her children. Which, among other reasons, is why those of us who continue to work full time and are feisty avoid the luncheons, dinners, and outings of the Senior Center. In effect we are denying we are seniors. How very different from the elders of my childhood who were proud of their respected achievement of having reached the facing benches, of being elders!

And the present-day seniors? In our small New England town I personally know most of the ladies and the fewer gentlemen who spend considerable time at the Senior Center. Have they really reached their dotage? Not at all. They are a wise lot for the most part who would look great sitting on the facing benches.

“But no one listens to us,” is a frequently heard refrain from these folks, said with resignation and an undercurrent of anger. There is the implication that the speaker feels useless, perhaps even a burden to a society, which is spending extra tax dollars on the Senior Center: money that could be spent on its children.

Those of us who have passed our 55th birthday are indeed aware of what’s going on, and we all vote. But in our town, as in much of the country, age segregation has become a reality reflecting the takeover by the youth culture. In the same way that advertisers target younger age groups, so does the real world. The youth worship has been further exacerbated by the belief that only the very young can deal with the modern world with its rapidly changing technology. Information technology supposedly demands skills only the grandkids feel comfortable with and know how to use. But do they really? Oh, many youngsters are a delight as they show us their expertise at accessing information.

But since when is accessing information the same as understanding it? The latter frequently requires years of hard intellectual effort. And it is the conclusions that come from hard intellectual effort that many elders have acquired – understandings that have been forged by years of learning how to build and think with story engrams – story engrams that should be passed on to future generations.

With our youth worship we are in danger of losing a part of human history, losing knowledge that has taken generations to achieve. But is this solely the fault of the very young or of their baby boomer parents? Are our boomers and their children really that reluctant to hear what we the elders have to say? Or are we, the AARP generation, despite our protests, participants in youth idolatry with its love for the unwrinkled face, the elegant fast moving body?

How often do those of us who have passed the 55 age bump dejectedly refer to what is gone, what we are no more, as though that means we have become inferior, meanwhile ignoring what we have gained? There is a droop in many of our shoulders; reflecting a self-rejection easily picked up by any passer-by regardless of age. Seeing the despondent droop, nice people respond like the young mother running our local Senior Center who uses the same voice on the seniors as on her children.

Expectations are powerful determinants of performance, not only for children but also for adults. It is psychologically difficult to counter and surmount the lowered expectations seen in the eyes and attitudes of those around us when it’s apparent that we have passed the crucial 55. And since the psychological literature on aging usually deals with loss, loss and deterioration is what even the scientists imply we should expect of ourselves.

But deterioration isn’t descriptive of the elders of my childhood sitting on the front benches. Why should it define us? Today’s AARP generation has lived through the most dramatic changes in the history of humankind. We have experienced the transformations that came with jet planes, TV, and now information technology. In our lifetime, these and other major inventions altered our world; but we have also experienced what has remained the same. We have had the incredible opportunity to observe the fundamentals of human interaction; we have glimpsed what really matters.

With story engrams developed over decades, we can transmit our understandings as a cultural legacy to future generations. We have in our repertoire entertaining and informative stories about how to navigate our human world – and the many ways that people are not technology. So will they listen? Of course they'll listen to our exciting how-to stories cleverly built with mature story engrams. Besides, they too want to learn how to become like us, the elders of the 21st century.

Dr. Renée Fuller has a B.A. in psychology, an M.A. in experimental psychology from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. (1963) in physiological psychology from New York University. For her work creating the Ball-Stick-Bird reading program, she received Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Distinguished Achievement Award. The American Psychological Association devoted a symposium to the results of the reading system and its implications for intelligence theory. She has published widely in the field of clinical physiological psychology. She continues her work developing learning programs, writing books and articles about how children learn, and consulting to school systems, universities and homeschoolers.

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