Is “Every Generation an Island”?

* This post originally appeared on Plumfield Academy’s blog. *


“AS SUMMER DRAWS TO A CLOSE, we prepare for some obvious changes: shorter days, cooler temperatures, a significant drop in ice cream consumption. But another change takes place as well, something whose consequences most of us don’t ordinarily think about. Grown-ups return to work, where they’ll toil alongside other working-age people. Children go back to their schools, neatly separated by grade. Millions of young adults will pack their bags for college, where they’ll live and work almost exclusively with their exact peers.

In other words, we’ll be sorting ourselves out by how old we are.”  — Leon Neyfakh

As we were gearing up for the start of the school year – my daughter counting down the days til she was reunited with her beloved friends at Plumfield – this fascinating article arrived on our doorstep with the rest of the Sunday paper. It’s a thoughtful piece, worrying about the relational, cultural and economic impact of Americans being more and more segregated by age. While it might seem convenient to spend time with those of your own age (“College students want to stay up late and pair off with each other; seniors understandably crave peace and quiet”), the author warns that there are costs that we must bear (“It can sow distrust and prejudice between generations, and robs people of the chance to learn from those younger and older than them”). The article describes some of the how and why of this age segregation, and gave me reason to reflect on one of Plumfield’s great qualities: age mixed learning.

Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education rested on Christ’s vision of meeting our deepest human needs.  At Plumfield, we recognize the needs of children to include: the companionship of their parents, high quality “mind food,” child-driven free play, meaningful work, healthy relationships, contact with nature, pursuit of interests, and a naturally evolving spiritual life. Charlotte Mason understood then, and we understand now, that in order for the whole person to be fully developed, relationships of all kinds must be present: those older, who can teach and model, those peers and companions on the journey, those younger and energetic who can remind and inspire. Each age and stage of life has something to learn from and something to offer others, and it’s to our detriment to unnecessarily segregate ourselves or our children.

Despite the author’s statement that “there’s no major movement back toward educating kids in mixed age groups,” Plumfield is a place where age segregation is limited and mixed age groups are the norm. We have tutors ranging from 20’s-60’s. Our students are often in class with students several years older or younger than they are. Grandparents and younger siblings are regular visitors, for an afternoon visit or the whole day.

Parents and students work together, volunteering in a local soup kitchen; the younger ones learn how to cook and serve, the older students teach those skills, and the parents supervise. All learn about the humanity of others through service. Mrs. Pension, the 95 year old mother of our principal, joins us at pizza night out and for our annual outing to the Topsfield Fair. Students not only engage in enjoyable conversation with her, they witness positive interactions between mother and son and realize age doesn’t define or change some kinds of relationships.

My daughter, at the end of her 3rd grade last year, was horrified to learn that one of her best friends, an 8th grader, was graduating and thus not returning to Plumfield. “What will I do?” she wailed to me, one afternoon. “She always pushes me on the tire swing, yelling ‘Bee-doo, Bee-doo’ like she is the police officer and I am the bad guy?” Fast forward to this year, and late one afternoon I hear from her: “Today was a great day! I pushed my friend [who is in first grade] on the tire swing a lot. We played bad guys/good guys, and I gave him most of my time to swing.”

It still amazes me that an 8th grader would spend her free time chasing a 3rd grader; I shouldn’t be surprised then when that 3rd grader turns around and responds in kind to a 1st grader. It’s a beautiful thing to witness uninhibited joy spread around like that.

Age mixing doesn’t mean that we pretend everyone is the same – for example, some field trips are appropriate for our older students and not our younger (the upcoming overnight camping trip is a good example of that). But what it does mean is that each of the students, indeed all of us who are part of Plumfield, have the freedom to celebrate both ourselves and one another, as we actually are.

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