Sages with no time for Saga

February 7, 2003

The attention paid to the academy's youngbloods can overshadow those at retirement age or beyond. But Adrian Mourby finds age no bar to valuable scholarship

From Botox injections to S Club Juniors, it seems that society is obsessed with youth like never before. So it came as something of a shock when Simon Hoggart recently savaged the telegenic Tristram Hunt in the Literary Review, comparing his English Civil War at First Hand unfavourably with another history written by a much older academic whose full-colour photo has never graced the pages of the Radio Times .

"In his eighty-fifth yearI Austin Woolrych has now written probably the only book on the English Civil War that you are ever likely to need," Hoggart said. He continued: "This is mighty bad luck for Tristram Hunt, whose own book in comparison comes over as Civil War LiteI When the link is finally established between a boy's prettiness and his ability to write brilliantly and insightfully about history, no doubt a lot of us will be out of a job."

Woolrych, emeritus professor of history at the University of Lancaster, says he was 28 when he first entered university so he "wasn't even young when (he) embarked on academic life". But he is not alone in breaking new ground late in life. The philosopher Mary Warnock, who will be 79 this year, has recently published Making Babies , a characteristically sharp investigation into a woman's supposed right to reproduce. The historian Eric Hobsbawm is approaching 86, and yet his output of history and memoir is undiminished. Donald Davidson, the distinguished American philosopher, is 85. His colleague at the University of California, Berkeley, Bernard Williams, the man Melvyn Bragg calls "Britain's premier philosopher", is a youthful 74.

Are these people rare exceptions, or can most octogenarians still hold their own among younger colleagues in the senior common room?

Davidson comments: "I do not think it is fruitful to generalise about what ageing does to teachers or students; some people just get going at 80 and others quit." He has, however, noticed that his approach to professional life has changed with age. He spends more and more time writing letters of recommendation, introductions to new editions and translations, answering questionnaires, evaluating projects, and less time reading what he wants to. "No doubt my scholarly production suffers from this change," he says.

Nevertheless, he still finds teaching, lecturing and travelling as stimulating as ever. He reasons that philosophers tend to remain active in their profession for so long because of "the central role interpersonal exchange plays in practising philosophy".

Woolrych agrees. "I do think that older academics often shine in philosophy and history, but they are not the only subjects in which scholarship improves with age. In history and philosophy, however, mature reflection counts for at least as much as the gathering of evidence. The personal experiences of a long life span have certainly deepened my understanding as a historian; so has the broadening of my acquaintance with the infinite varieties of human nature."

K. Warner Schaie, director of Pennsylvania State University's Gerontology Center, says the mental skills that diminish in old age should not necessarily disqualify healthy academics from continuing in certain subject areas. "Typical findings on late-life decline of intellectual competence suggest that complex inductive reasoning, numeric skills and spatial orientation decline slightly by the late 60s and markedly by the early 80s.

On the other hand, verbal ability and memory for facts remain intact until the late 70s and decline only slightly in the 80s."

Woolrych has noticed that his abilities have changed with age. "In breaking new ground through original research, I was probably at my peak from my mid-30s to my mid-60s. That is why I chose, as the work of old age, to write a broad survey for the general reader of the historical period that has been the main subject of my teaching and research. I think I may have done this better than I would have done earlier in life, even though my mental energies - and certainly my memory - are not what they were."

But Tom Kirkwood, professor of gerontology at the University of Newcastle's Institute for Ageing and Health, is not convinced that age is kinder to academics in some subjects than to those in others. "Of course there are subjects such as history where it helps to have lived a long time to gain a perspective on historical trends, and certain subjects do rely on high cognitive processing speed - and these will be the ones that are most obviously affected by ageing - but repeated training and practice can, seemingly, preserve certain cognitive skills, as we see in musical performers."

Kirkwood argues that even in "fast-moving" areas such as the biological sciences, there are plenty of examples of individuals who have gained in wisdom as they have aged and who have incorporated new techniques into their working lives.

"It might be argued that there is a greater need now than ever before for this kind of wisdom," he says. He suspects that the real difference is attitudinal. "People may simply be more willing to concede the possibility of wisdom to older academics in some disciplines than in others. I suspect that this might tell us quite a lot about societal attitudes to ageing more generally. There are many subjects, such as the experimental sciences, where it becomes increasingly hard to run a lab as you get older. You need expensive facilities and grants to do this, and there are significant attitudinal barriers."

Hobsbawm has seen these barriers curtail the careers of a number of his colleagues, though not his own. "There are two advantages of the humanities and philosophy over the sciences. They are not only easier to practise than, say mathematics, and so mental decline is not so damaging, but they need less equipment. With a room, phone and computer, plus access to libraries and a little conversation, I can go on at 85 doing history as I did 40 years ago, if more slowly and gently. But I recall the grim mood with which my country neighbour P. M. S. Blackett looked forward to the age of 70, when he would inevitably lose his lab."

The British physicist Patrick Blackett was a Nobel laureate who led breakthrough work on cosmic radiation and rock magnetism. He died seven years after retirement. "What could a man, however distinguished - Nobel prize, president of the Royal Society and all, but too old for original thought in physics - do without a lab?" Hobsbawm asks. "Nothing. When I asked him, a year or two later, how he spent his time, he said bitterly: 'Sometimes they ring me up to ask who should have a knighthood'."

Warnock has been more fortunate. She does not see herself as a practising philosopher, but her output of books continues. "I've always been interested in the history of ideas, and it is possible to keep up with these," she says. "I should think it would be very difficult to be a non-historical philosopher without access to a library for the latest American and Australian publications."

At 79, Warnock concedes no diminution in her faculties. "I write no more slowly. In fact, with modern technology, I write more easily now. I don't read more slowly either, although I do tend to go to sleep more quickly if a book is boring. That is something of a test for me these days. I think 80 will be something of a watershed, however."

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