Back in 2001, comedy writer Armando Iannucci wrote a short series of sketches for Channel 4 on life and modern culture. In one sketch, a 42-year-old gent was sent to a Home for Middle Aged Men, in which he was settled quietly into a chair in the corner with newspapers and a small beer. At one point, a nun gathers the men in a room to explain how their best years are behind them.
“There is not now a single man in this room”, she says, “that will ever be an astronaut”.
Sure, it’s all meant as satire. But reading about our bodies as adults can often feel like getting that same depressing pep-talk. For example, recent research by the Universities of Groningen and Essex used brain activity scans to demonstrate that our ability to learn languages diminishes progressively as we age. It’s said that a person’s maximum capacity to use oxygen drops by 10% a decade beyond the age of 30, limiting their ability to perform athletically. Every year, it feels like you’re watching a train drift further and further from your station.
Okay, so we may not have the spring in our step that we had when we were 15. But older learners have a secret weapon: Focus.
It all comes down to a question of “why” we learn. When we were younger, the “why” was often filled in for us. We needed to achieve grades, which would open the gates to more education or a job. There was a clear path, and that path had little fixed stone markers on it to show you how well you were doing. While this approach worked for some, for others it was like dragging them backwards through a hedge.
A study by the University of Reading analysed data on the performance of German secondary school students from 2002 to 2007, and hypothesised that parents showing ambition for their children could help them improve performance. However, if their aspirations exceeded the child’s ability, it could lead to a noticeable drop in achievement. There are many examples of people who rejected the strict measures of success in their education, and still went on to carve out a life of achievement.
As adults, we have the power to get more from learning – as long as we give ourselves the freedom to create our own definition of what success looks like. We have a lifetime of experience to draw on, and we have a much clearer idea of what particular ingredients we need to add to our life to bring out the flavour. Real successes don’t always come with an A* grade.
This is particularly true of creative subjects, where the benefits of learning can be dramatic, but are often less quantifiable. The Open College of the Arts has welcomed adult learners from across the world, and while some have enrolled to boost their career prospects, many have embraced their courses for different reasons. Some have found that tutoring has pulled them out of a creative rut. Some have tapped into the enthusiasm of fellow students, or found a new community of like-minded friends and collaborators. Others have discovered that flexible learning is a powerful way to break from routine and boost self-confidence.
So what else could a successful education mean?
One obvious goal is to build a new career, or subtly divert the current one. The average age of distance learners has dropped in recent years as people recognise the potential to change direction, and now stands in the mid-thirties. Many find the experience of tutors and fellow students and alumni re-assuring and helpful when navigating this path.
However, learning to complete a single task can be an equally valid goal. Some go back to school to get that extra push to tick something off a life-list, whether that’s having their work exhibited or performing at a son or daughter’s wedding.
It’s when we have the courage to re-define “success” that we discover the real benefits of education. Re-discovering an appetite for learning can have a measurable effect on self-belief and happiness, can provide us with a fresh perspective or added vigour, and may even help to maintain our brain’s health into older age.
So next time you consider learning something new, don’t put yourself off by ranking yourself against others. Set your own goals, and plan your own destination. You may not reach the stars, but think of the places you’ll go.
The Open College of the Arts offers distance-learning courses in subjects such as fine art, photography, music, graphic design, creative writing, sculpture and film. It is part of the University for the Creative Arts. To learn more, go to http://www.oca.ac.uk/
Also published on Medium.