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Why Does a Sixty-five Year Old Start an Online Undergraduate Degree?

By Don Pardew, student, Center for Distance Learning

September 24, 2013

In a line from a sixties sitcom a woman declares defiantly, “I am going to have a nervous breakdown, I have worked for it, I have earned it, I deserve it and no one is going to deprive me of it.” I have long forgotten the source of the line, perhaps “Saturday Night Live,” but the hilarity of it keeps it fresh in memory. The line also describes well why many people decide at a mature age to enroll in an undergraduate degree program. But getting a 65–year-old to sit in a classroom with 20-year-olds is more difficult than getting a 5-year-old to eat their spinach. So the traditional classroom setting is usually not an option, typically for reasons of pride more than inconvenience. But, like the woman from the sixties sitcom, we 65-year-olds defiantly enroll for an undergraduate degree because “we have worked for it, we have earned it, we deserve it and no one is going to deprive us of it,” even if it means eating our academic spinach.

And there is always some academic spinach that must be eaten – e.g., assignment deadlines, a course or two we would prefer to skip – but while the taste may occasionally be just as unpalatable to a 65-year-old as the real stuff can be to a 5-year-old, the online degree helps the medicine go down. Contrary to the often heard criticism that online courses do not provide for the discourse among students and professors assumed so essential to learning, its scarcity is precisely why some of us find the online option so appealing. We are busy having long postponed conversations with ourselves, and do not want others interrupting. When we need to discuss an issue with other students or to reflect with a professor, the opportunity is just a few mouse clicks away.

It has been said that teaching is a highly overrated activity, learning a highly underrated one. Experience suggests that it is around age 60 that the validity of this assertion becomes undeniable. Also, around the same time two hypotheses seem to get confirmed: first, no matter how many degrees we hold, relative to what we long to know, we know so very little; and second, learning is the duty of the learner, not the duty of the professor. So we can, because we must, and as we prefer, do most of it ourselves. The professor creates the environment, plants clues along the path to knowledge, and then watches from a distance that we do not stray too far from the path, or if we do, and some for certain will, that it is for justifiable reasons of intellectual curiosity. These roles in the learning process by online professors are underrated.

For a 65-year-old it is more important to question the answers than it is to answer the questions. There comes a time when we cannot be comfortable contemplating the short-term consequences of our decisions without contemplating the long term consequences. Material consequences must be balanced with spiritual consequences, and personal consequences balanced with larger social consequences, in short, to understand trade-offs. And with time running out, 65 is a perfect time to have an “undergraduate degree nervous breakdown.”

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