Thursday, September 09, 2010

The Third Chapter of Life

One of the joys of working with people who are writing about their personal legacies is hearing their life stories and learning about changes they've made in their lives. Many of the stories I've heard have involved the changes the women and men have made in what sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot calls "The Third Chapter" of life.

In her book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50, Lawrence-Lightfoot explores the "ways in which men and women between the ages of fifty and seventy-five find ways of changing, adapting, exploring, mastering, and channeling their energies, skills, and passions into new domains of learning." She "challenges the still-prevailing and anachronistic images of aging by documenting and revealing the ways in which the years between fifty and seventy-five may, in fact, be the most transformative and generative time in our lives; it traces the ways in which wisdom, experience, and new learning inspire individual growth and cultural transformation."

The author interviewed forty women and men across the U.S. and found common themes, among them the urge for "leaving a legacy", for "giving back" and "giving forward", and for "making an imprint." In the life legacy workshops I've conducted, these themes have emerged as well -- from women in their 70's who are creating art after a life of work as teachers and homemakers, from a retired man in his 60's writing a screenplay about being the only white member of a black baseball team in his youth, and from others who are devoting their lives to work for volunteer organizations after years in the corporate world.

For many, The Third Chapter requires a "paradigm shift" in their lives, often "to align our professed values with our actions, our rhetoric with our behaviors." Lawrence-Lightfoot notes that such a shift can be "confusing, risky, and passionate -- are likely to be more difficult and demanding than the learning we have experienced at earlier stages of our lives, making the journey forward feel more hazardous. The stories we compose are our only map."

If you've already passed the age of 50, I think you'll find the stories of people interviewed for the book both interesting and inspirational, especially if you're seeking a more creative, purposeful life. And Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot's conclusions about successful aging and lifelong learning, the innovations required in our schools, and the need for intergenerational dialogues to challenge society and cultural presumptions, offer a compelling vision to bring change to our institutions and our lives.


NOTE: To watch an interview with Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot about The Third Chapter, see Bill Moyer's Journal. Also, my recent blog posting on the Legacy of Education: A "Cherishing" School Culture reflects on one of the author's conclusions to her book.
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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Legacy of Education: A "Cherishing" School Culture

For the past two years, I've worked half-time for Wellsprings Friends School, an alternative high school in Eugene. My contract ended in June so tomorrow I'll be missing the first "morning circle" that marks the beginning of the new school year.

In light of my experience at the school, I've been thinking about the legacy of education in our lives. And, in my reading of Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot's The Third Chapter this summer, I found the best way to describe the Wellsprings approach to educating young people: a "cherishing" school culture.

In the conclusion to Lawrence-Lightfoot's book, she quotes Mary Catherine Bateson on the need for cherishing to be fully open to learning throughout one's life:

"One of the things we know about the human capacity to keep on learning, to remain young at heart and willing to learn, is that it needs to be supported by cherishing. We needed to be cherished as infants, and as adults we need to cherish our children. But if we want a society of people willing and open and ready to learn, it has to be a kinder, gentler society, because we need a lot of mutual support to face change, to give up things we've always believed in."

The author believes that "our contemporary preoccupation with testing" in schools leads to "a narrowing and standardization of learning that neglects the building of the 'edifice' of life. And I believe that the parts of the school curriculum -- the arts and humanities, sports, and community service in particular -- that are the first to be eliminated when schools are facing budget cuts, may be the very arenas that support approaches to learning that will emerge as important to sustaining development across the life span."

Lawrence-Lightfoot calls for a "shift to a more embracing, generous, complex curriculum, and a more 'cherishing' school culture (that) will require changes in societal expectations, cultural priorities, and educational policies. In turn, it will require that teachers in our schools see themselves as lifelong learners, modeling for their students a curiosity about life and a fearless pursuit of knowledge; this, in turn, will nourish the imagination, questioning, storytelling, intellectual discipline, and adventurousness of the students in their classrooms."

In my view, Wellsprings Friends School models just such a "cherishing school culture." Its teachers show their love for their students and demonstrate their love of learning each day.

My hope is that the radical changes needed in our education system (and coming eventually) will leave a legacy of cherishing for future generations of lifelong learners.

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