BY AARON BARLOWWriting in InsideHigherEd, Rebecca Gould claims that mandatory retirement at 65 would be “a good first step toward dismantling hierarchies and opening opportunities for many more young scholars.” The assumption, of course, is that young scholars are of more value than older ones. And that older scholars don’t need opportunities. Oh, and that senior academics create, of necessity, abusive hierarchies.
The assumption, also, is quintessential ageism.
As one who didn’t start a serious academic career until he was in his fifties and who is now 66, I’m more than a little biased on this question, but I really don’t see the value of shoving people aside simply because they have lived more years. I learned this when I was young, from older people.
Perhaps my favorite professor when I was an undergraduate at Beloit College in Wisconsin was a man, Bernard Morrissey, who was approaching 80 (he wouldn’t quite make it, dying shoveling snow soon after my class with him). He taught a course called “A Natural History of Satan,” a literature course I retain more from than any other I took, even in graduate school. Morrissey would stand at the lectern, shiny skin on his head looking like buffed parchment, a fringe of white hair and the most demonic smile I have ever seen hovering over the room of awed undergraduates. In addition to being meemorable, more than any other teacher I have ever had (outside of my dissertation director), Morrissey changed the arc of my academic climb.
For the May/June issue of Academe, Margaret Morganroth Gullette wrote “The Monument and the Wrecking Crew: Ageism in the academy,” an essay in which she writes of the tragedy of “treating aging, in the profession, and in ordinary life, as a decline.” Making the assumptions that Gould makes writes off, without any consideration, the most skilled and knowledgeable part of society. Followed to its logical conclusion, the young might as well just kill us all. Remember Wild in the Streets? Remember “Don’t trust anyone over 30”?
Maybe we have to be older to understand how stupid we were when we were young. Certainly, we’ll never learn that at all if we cull people out as their hair grays.