On teaching adults, even when they are young

I rather dryly pointed out to one of my wonderful colleagues–a terrific and caring teacher–that her students are, in fact, adults when she was reacting to them–college age students–rather in a way that you might with younger students, such as those of high school age.

What’s wrong with that, you ask? I mean, most college students aren’t much out of high school.

Here’s my thinking. When you render your college-age students younger than they are, you are not helping them understand what it means to learn as adults. This is much trickier than otherwise seems. One bad thing about teacher-student and child-adult dichotomies is the idea that teaching goes only one way (it doesn’t); or that you reach an age where you no longer need mentors and role models. That is, simply, not true in my experience. There are many things you have to learn as an adult, and the way you do that is by engaging with other adults qua adults— a bit at time, yes, but still, as an autonomous person capable of agency.

This is not to say you are all that good at being an adult when you are a young adult. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t respect the agency that comes with adulthood.

Adult problems are the most difficult: cancer, the loss of children, parents, friends. Making choices of paralyzing difficulty with very high economic and relationship consequences. Those are the things that you need help with as you grow more and more into adulthood—and facing those with students and proteges is a lot more complex than treating them like they are incapable of making choices about sex or booze or whether to study or go mess around. In general, natural consequences and their own intellect will help them clarify their own choices and priorities there.

The other stuff–the stuff of real adulthood–is cripplingly harder, and those are situations where friends and mentors are in desperately short supply, when you need older friends to inspire and protect you.