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.
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.
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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