Old and Young and Old

I remem­ber when I was a bat­tal­ion intel­li­gence offi­cer in World War II, in North­ern Italy.


We were pass­ing through these lit­tle old towns. The hous­es weren’t big, but all the gen­er­a­tions were there. The old weren’t put out to pas­ture. They were our best means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. They were what civ­i­liza­tion is about: human his­to­ry, work, gen­er­a­tions. Old ones, grand­par­ents, even great-grand­par­ents, talked to the lit­tle ones, and fas­ci­nat­ed them. It was the oral tra­di­tion, gen­er­a­tion after gen­er­a­tion. Instead of watch­ing tele­vi­sion, the child lis­tened to the old one, learn­ing his his­to­ry of dreams and won­der.

Our young haven’t lost their his­to­ry, it was tak­en from them. We’ve stuffed them into a pro­crustean bed. Remem­ber him? Pro­crustes? If the guest didn’t fit, he’d cut him or stretch him. That’s what we’re doing to our young, mak­ing them fit.

Here is a child, born with a sense of won­der, ready to admire and love what is seen and expe­ri­enced. We say, “Watch it now, a lit­tle bit less, cool it, cool it,” until this extra­or­di­nary sense of won­der is reduced to noth­ing.


If the old per­son can’t lis­ten any­more, he per­pet­u­ates the errors of his ances­tors. You don’t need him. You need to say, “All right, Grand­pa, when did you last change your mind about any­thing? When did you last get a new idea? Can I help you change your mind while you help me change mine?”

David Brow­er, as quot­ed by Studs Terkel in his book of oral his­to­ry, Com­ing of Age