On age and experience and respecting elders

A lot of commentary about the financial crisis of 2008 spoke about there not being anyone around who had experienced the Great Depression of the 1930s. The American Economy was largely stable till the end of the 1970s, they had argued, because the memory of the Depression was fresh in the minds of most policy-makers, and they made sure not to repeat similar mistakes. With that cohort retiring, and dying, however, in the 1990s and 2000s there emerged a bunch of policy makers with absolutely no recollection of the depression (in the 1990s, most policy makers would have been born in the 1940s or later). And so they did not hedge themselves and the economy against the kind of risks that had brought America down to its knees in the 1930s.

Now, think back to a society which was far less networked than ours is, and there was little writing (“no writing” would take us too far back in time, but think of a time when it was fairly expensive to write and store written material). This meant, that there were no books, and little to understand and experience apart from what one directly experienced. For example, one would never know what a storm is if one had never directly experienced it. One wouldn’t know how to light a fire if one had never seen a fire being lit. You get the drift. Back in those days when societies were hardly networked and there wasn’t much writing, there was only one way in which one could have learnt things – by having experienced it.

I suspect that this whole concept of elders having to be unconditionally respected had its advent in one such age. Back then, the older you were, the more you had experienced (naturally!), and hence the more you knew! There was no other way in which one could accumulate knowledge or understanding. In places like India, even education didn’t help, for “education” back in those days consisted of little more than learning the scriptures by rote, and didn’t teach much in terms of real knowledge. So taking the advice of elders naturally meant taking the advice of someone who knew more. It is natural to assume that these people who knew more than the ones around were respected.

With the advent of books, and later (post Gutenburg) the advent of cheap books, all this began to change. It became possible for people to know without having experienced. It became possible for people to get more networked, and the direct impact of both of these was that it became possible to know more without having really experienced it. In this day of highly networked societies and wikipedia, it is even possible to know everything about something without even pretending to have experienced it (attend some high school seminars and you’ll know what I’m talking about). There is no connection at all now between age and how much you know.

Culture, however, doesn’t adapt itself so quickly. It didn’t help that “elders”, whose position as the “most knowledgeable” was being threatened thanks to writing and networking, were also the people in power. In any case, the real reason of respect for elders had probably been lost, so it was easier for them to extend their reign. And so it continues to extend.

Older people nowadays fail to recognize that younger people might know more than them, and get offended if the younger people tend to argue with them. Yes, experience is still a great teacher, but the correlation between experience and knowledge has long since been broken. As the pupils sang at the beginning of the Vishnuvardhan starrer Guru Shishyaru (the teacher and the pupils), “doDDavarellaa jaaNaralla, chikkavarellaa kONaralla, gurugaLu hELida maatugaLantoo endoo nijavallaa” (elders are not wise, youngsters are not buffaloes, what the teacher says is never true).

PS: As I was writing this, it struck me that this whole “respect for elders” paradigm is more prevalent in societies (such as India) where education was largely religious. Societies where education was more secular don’t seem to have this paradigm.

5 thoughts on “On age and experience and respecting elders”

  1. I don’t really agree with the premise.
    Back in the old days, your “teacher” of the “gurukula” played the role of today’s internet – stuffing you with facts/advice that you need to live in the world.
    Back then, your grandmother would probably never “know” as much as the guru (and you probably never went to her for “worldly” advice), yet you were taught to “respect” her.

    So the link between “knowledge” and “respect” looks weak to me.

  2. It goes one step further soon – with increased and immense data available to more people, even respect for older books which were based on fewer data points will diminish.

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