Bible,  Education,  Politics

In with the Old

Amber Petrovich argues that too many old people are in charge and that they should stand aside to make way for the young. The point is simple: Older people know less about what life is like now than younger people. Since government is about the present, younger people are better equipped to be in charge:

“too many of our politicians are too out of touch to be making crucial policy decisions that affect millions of lives every day…I will never claim to know what adult life was like in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, but I do know what adult life is like now. So why are you still making decisions for people like me who are becoming adults in this century?…The world now is drastically different … so why aren’t our politicians?”

Oddly, I have recently been saying exactly the opposite: Older people have had more opportunity to experience life and ought to have gained much wisdom from those experiences. Thus, it is better to be governed by older people than younger. I even thought it might be wise to limit political office to those over the age of fifty. This would make career politicians a thing of the past and would also mean that in order to serve in political office, they would have to be judged on a life lived as the rest of us do. By the time they could throw their hat in the ring, they would have had careers, raised children, served in the community, and exhibited actions consistent with their beliefs. It is much easier to judge a person worthy of office if they haven’t spent their life organizing everything in order to stay in it.

So, who’s right?

Petrovich’s argument depends on whether there is a sufficient difference between life now as opposed to the past and whether one is only able to understand the problems of now if one is experiencing them directly. Neither of these claims are plausible.

Is the world so drastically different now than it was as recently as the 80s, So different, in fact, that Petrovich cannot know what life was like in the 80s and anyone growing up in the 80s cannot know what life is like today? Petrovich says that the crucial differences come down to the price of raising children, college, and retirement, the social arrangements between the sexes and races, and the consideration paid to the environment. But are those things so different that an older person cannot understand them? I can’t see why? To understand an issue is to at least be able to comprehend a set of facts (the produce of empirical data showing costs of college, consequences of global warming etc) and an awareness of the various solutions to the problems. Accompanying knowledge of facts, a person ought to be equipped with a basic knowledge of principles by which one addresses problems. But none of these requirements are only met by young people.

Petrovich’s argument ultimately rests on another premise – a person can only understand an issue if he or she has direct experience of it. So, if one is not presently accumulating college debt or has recently graduated with a pile of it, one cannot legislate properly over the issue. There is a difference between knowing the facts and experiencing something first-hand. We might call the latter experiential knowledge and the former propositional knowledge. Though it is theoretically possible to know all the facts about an experience one is not personally having, one cannot know what it is like to have that experience.

Petrovich means one of two things – only those who have actually experienced what Petrovich has experienced can govern her well or that only those who have had similar experiences as Petrovich can govern Petrovich (and those who’ve had similar experiences) well. If the former, then no one on earth except Petrovich can govern Petrovich well. If the latter, then it is likely that older people have had similar experiences to Petrovich and can govern her well. Neither option supports Petrovich’s claim – one entails that there should be no government at all (except oneself); the other allows that older people can govern younger people.

What about my suggestion? Is age a guarantee of wisdom? No, older people are capable of foolishness. Rather, what grants wisdom is humility and a desire for further wisdom. Ask any older person who is the wiser, the older or the younger version of themselves, and you will get an almost unanimous response – I’m wiser now I’m old. They will also tell you that they wish they could tell their younger selves “listen to your elders”!

The Bible also tell us that when we desire wisdom, the place to start is older people. “Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you” (Deut 32:7). “Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old” (Prov 23:22). Anyone looking for wisdom is wise at least not to neglect the instructions of her elders. They may not always be right, but it is a surer course than only listening to her peers. Of course, the Bible claims that the ultimate source of wisdom is found in the oldest of beings, God himself. It also tells us that if we want wisdom, we are to ask him for it.

Though it appears true that you are more likely to learn wisdom from your elders, there is a move afoot to invert the order. Some suggest that if the two find themselves in opposition, the older are almost certainly wrong. Recently, I wrote about a teacher who seemed to think that when the students disagree with her over a matter she should give way to their view. This is not only unwise, it is dangerous.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.