Tip-of-the-Month: Counteract Age Segregation
15 October 2002 (collegiateway.org) — I attended a dinner at a residential college last month and sat with a young faculty couple who had come with their two-year-old son. They had been a bit apprehensive about bringing him, and yet they wanted (very much, I suspect) to get out of their house for a few hours and spend some time socializing with other people. Like all new parents they had a hard time relaxing, however, because every time they began a conversation they would have to turn away every few seconds to make sure their child hadn’t climbed up on the serving table or disappeared down the hallway. They had a hard time, that is, until a random undergraduate appeared who latched on to the child like a long-lost brother. He sat himself right down at an empty table beside the little boy, started drawing pictures on napkins with him, pointed around the room asking him the names of things, helped the child attach little plastic stickers to his drawings, and for the better part of an hour acted as an impromptu babysitter of the highest order. “Do you have brothers and sisters at home?” one of the faculty parents asked the freshman, who was himself living away from home for the first time. “Yeah,” he said, his eyes fixed on a picture the child was drawing on a napkin. “I have a little brother. He’s older now, ya know, but I used to play with him all the time. I really miss him.”
Young adults will always make up the better part of any university community because of the nature of the educational enterprise. But if young adults are all that a university has, and if those young adults spend all but 15–20 hours of each week segregated into corners of the campus where the only older people they see are custodians, and where they see no younger people at all, then the university is providing them with an impoverished and deformed social environment. A true mix of age groups is, sadly, one of the scarcest commodities on a university campus. And yet “persons at each stage of life,” write Christopher Alexander and his colleagues in their masterful volume A Pattern Language, “have something irreplaceable to give and to take from the community, and it is just these transactions which help a person to solve the problems that beset each stage.” Who benefited from the simple dinnertime interaction I saw? The child, certainly, who was brought into a new social environment; and the parents, who began to relax and delight in the time they had to socialize with their peers and watch their child’s development; but also, and especially, the undergraduate, who discovered that when things are put together right, the humanity of his home can be found also in his college.