There's a movement afoot to encourage older people to go back to college, one more inspired by sentiment than by common sense. Because the truth of the matter is that many of those oldsters aren't able to keep up. I ought to know.
Not long ago, when I was trying to teach a course on Journalism and Public Philosophy, it became evident that one of the students wasn't catching on. She was a white-haired grandmother who never seemed to understand what the class was all about.
For instance, one week, when we were discussing "Daytime Poltical Affairs Talk Shows," she said that she never could understand why journalists clamored to get on such programs in the first place.
"After all," she said, "the lights are hot. And it is a long way across town. And they don't get paid."
"They do it as a public service," I explained.
She was frowning and chewing on a pencil and consulting some notes she had made. "I thought about that," she said. "But you see, my daughter is married to a journalist. And I have met a whole lot of them. And when it comes to public service. . ."
"Let's not go into that," I said.
"Besides," she said, "just what sort of public service is it supposed to be? I mean, what are they doing for the public when they get on?"
Obviously she was not college material, and by way of going on to more important matters, I told her I'd answer that question the following week. After that, I watched five straight days of those shows, so as to be sure of my reply.
"They want to publicize their books," I said, at the start of the next class.
"That occurred to me," she said. "But most of them don't have any book to sell."
"Ah," I said. "But they might want to sell one later on."
"As a public service?"
She scratched her head. "I got that far," she said. "But it seems to me that if they wanted to sell a book, they would want people to think that they were intelligent. And if they were intelligent . . ."
". . . Why would they go on such a show in the first place," I put in.
"You see my problem," she said.
"It is a question of balance," I explained. "On the one hand the long drive across town, and the hot lights, for no money, admittedly look stupid. On the other hand, if they manage to say intelligent things while they are on . . ."
"Oh," she said. She was furiously scribbling notes and I thought that maybe I was getting somewhere. But the next class had only begun when I noticed that her hand was raised again.
"What is it now?" I asked. I was running out of patience.
"I have been thinking it over," she said.
"And what I want to know is, if somebody wants to look intelligent, wouldn't he want to talk about intelligent things?"
"Certainly," I said.
"But that's my problem," she said. "I just saw four grown men spend an hour under those hot lights talking about what Hamilton Jordan was really thinking, and . . ."
"You don't regard that as significant?" I demanded.
"Well," she said, "I told you I was having trouble."
"Hamilton Jordan is a powerful man," I said. "What he thinks is terribly important. You'll agree with that, won't you?" I had done my best to help her, but at times like this I knew it was no use.
"It's probably my age," she said. "I find myself going to sleep."
"That's no answer at all," I said.
"Politicians are not interesting men," she said. "And to sit around discussing what they think or don't think . . ."
"Don't stop there," I said.
I had her now. "Suppose you tell us, then," I said. "Just who would be interesting to talk about?"
"Beethoven?" she offered. "Babe Ruth?"
It was just too much.
"Listen," I said, as gently as I could. "Don't you realize that this is the capital of the Free World? Don't you know that what goes on here is terribly important?"
I stood there shaking my head.
"It's been a long time since I was in shcool," she explained. "And I look at all those talking faces under all those hot lights. And it all seems so absurd."
"I am going to tell you the real reason," I said at last.
"Political talk shows couldn't be absurd. Because thousands of people watch them every day. And if they were absurd, somebody would have noticed."
She was writing all this down. "I knew there had to be some reason," she said. "I knew that people wouldn't go on those things just out of vanity." A frown crossed her face. "Would they?"