Wise Beyond Their Years

Writer: 
August 1, 2005
Closing the gap: generations apart but not so different

Closing the gap: generations apart but not so different. Les Todd

On a Sunday afternoon in early spring, five Duke students sit in the corner of Jarvis commons room on East Campus, commiserating about sex and relationships. Nearby, three other groups are similarly engaged.

Although informal, these are not just impromptu chats. They are carefully structured as part of a house course called "Ethics in Practice: An Intergenerational Dialogue." The class, undertaken in cooperation with the Duke Institute for Learning in Retirement (DILR), includes a mix of Duke students and Triangle senior citizens.

Nicole Cobble, a Duke senior, tells those in her group, which is made up solely of Duke students, that her boyfriend's parents have refused to acknowledge that he and she are dating, because she is black and he is white. Earlier in the year, his parents planned a visit to campus, she says, and invited her to dine with them. But after they caught a glimpse of her on campus--a friend pointed her out--plans changed. Her boyfriend called her a few hours later. "He told me we weren't going anymore."

She receives a range of responses from her peers. Some are purely sympathetic. Others question why she would continue to date him. Still others seem apologetic, uncertain whether their own parents wouldn't act the same way. All are touched.

"You're going to have to share that with the whole group," says Philip Sugg, a sophomore who took the class last spring, the first time it was offered, and was recruited to facilitate the second installment. Cobble smiles nervously and, with a shrug, glances around the room. She isn't sure she wants to.

Maybe she's just tired of telling her story--it's a theme that comes up constantly in discussions with her friends--but perhaps she's also anxious about how an audience of seniors will respond. After all, they were all raised in a bygone era, and their values are sure to be different from her own. Might they react the same way her boyfriend's parents have, or worse? What seems to bother her most is the potential to disrupt the peace. But that is what this course is about.

Every day, Duke students have the opportunity to engage in personal discussions with other Duke students, sharing hopes and fears, questions and concerns. They speak, and they listen. They draw on common experiences. Except for an occasional dinner at a professor's home, they rarely, if ever, have that level of interaction with those outside their own generation. This course is about breaking the age bubble intrinsic to college life, seeing the world through a different set of eyes, and exploring the concept of ethics across age and experience. Over the course of the semester, Sugg will guide students through discussions of ethics across the lifespan--including topics such as family, death and dying, and, of course, relationships--then on to topics inspired by current events, such as environmental ethics and business ethics.

"In one sense it's a very novel idea," says Elizabeth Kiss, director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics, reflecting on the discussion. "In another, it's as old as human society, to have elders talk to young people." While she doesn't quite qualify as a DILR student yet, Kiss often attends as the course's faculty adviser.

When the whole group reconvenes, Cobble tucks away her fears and goes for it. Her classmates listen, and the disapproving glances, the cold shoulders she feared never materialize. Instead, she is bombarded with questions. "Why do you put up with that?" asks DILR participant Eva Harrington, who describes herself as "a very young eighty-three," getting straight to the point as usual. Other elders chime in as well: How does it make her feel? Is the relationship worth it? If anything, they are even more empathetic than her fellow Duke students.

It turns out that many DILR students have spent their careers working with college-age kids or recent graduates. Juanita Johnson, fifty-nine, for example, was a therapist and a counselor, and Bill Cox, sixty, mentored recent hires as a business executive. They've seen young people through similar struggles. Other seniors credit their empathy with having watched their own children grow. Faye Gregory, sixty-five, tells freshman Colleen Jeske that she reminds her of her own daughter, a Duke alumna who now works with the Durham Crisis Response Center, and promises to introduce the two.

In fact, just as house courses, which are partial-credit courses conceived and led by undergraduates, tend to attract a certain breed of Duke student--highly motivated, interested in truly owning their education--DILR attracts educated and involved seniors. (DILR, founded in 1977, now offers nearly sixty courses per semester on topics ranging from history and literature to belly-dancing; it enrolls more than 1,200 retirees drawn to the idea of lifelong education.) Many, including Johnson and her husband, Earl, a sixty-three-year-old former biometrician who is also in the class, based their decision to retire to the Triangle at least in part on the strength of the institute's course offerings and the opportunity to be a part of a vibrant university community.

"We don't want to be known as the 'Greatest Generation' or 'the oldsters,'" Cox explains. "We don't want to live in the past. We live in the present. We keep active. We have purpose in our lives."

For many of the older people in the class discussion, the past informs the present, but doesn't impinge on it. "Heavens above, to have sex outside of marriage?" exclaims Gregory, who was raised a Southern Baptist in Georgia and describes herself as a typical Southern girl. "There were no compromises when it came to sex," she says. "There was no doubt for me, and I didn't question it. It was just good girl or bad girl."

The older women nod in agreement. Several talk about the culture of shame that surrounded premarital sex; most say they handled things differently with their own children.

"I left the decision up to them," Gregory says. "I educated them about the consequences of their actions. They have made much better choices and have been much happier than I was."

Duke students and seniors alike note that improved technology has decreased the risks of unintentional pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and led to an increase in sexual activity. Ethical questions have evolved over time, they say. The question used to be about the morality of premarital sex; now it focuses more on being honest with partners.

Yet, similarities between the eras are abundant. Cox describes his childhood peers testing girls' purity by trying to get them into bed. He talks about dating bad girls and marrying good girls. Neither of these concepts seems entirely odd or old-fashioned to the youth of today. A culture of shame continues to exist to some extent, they say, with women still especially subject to labels of promiscuity.

DILR students and Duke students say that what surprises them most is the fact that their experiences are so similar--even though they are two generations apart. From the course, they take a real sense of continuity.

The biggest difference, Lois Pounds Oliver, seventy-two, a retired pediatrician and assistant professor at Duke Medical Center, tells the class, "is that this type of discussion wasn't a part of our college experience."

"It has changed my perception of the elderly," says freshman Jeske. "I had an expectation that once you have things figured out, it's smooth sailing from there. I'm searching, questioning, wondering about the meaning of life, and they are, too. There's not a final point we're all headed toward."