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Paradox of intergenerational learning

Updated: Apr 10, 2023

The title for this essay is heavier than I’d hoped. I had thought to use something like:

Why we don’t care what our great-great-grandmothers did


Why we don’t really care what our great-grandchildren will be doing.

But those were too long and don’t give the subject credit. The Paradox of Intergenerational Learning is as good as I could muster.

And besides, we say we do care! We say the past is interesting and the future exciting (or distressing, depending on your view). Yet it’s difficult to care deeply about past or future actions that span more than two generations beyond us. They become abstract as soon as we haven’t a living familial anchor. If we’re lucky, we get to be raised by parents, and if we’re very lucky we may even get to know grandparents. Those relationships of themselves are fascinating because the people are alive, they interact with us. We may even enjoy their company or learn from them.

Sometimes they irritate and frustrate the living daylights out of us. As we do them. It’s all part of living.

Can I make one thing clear though. I’m using generalisations for the purpose of discussion only. When I use the term parents or grandparents, there is no gender associated, or indeed, as may be the case, not necessarily even a hereditary link. I’m using the terms as labels for the previous generation and the one before that. I want you to think no more than a hundred years past and a hundred years into the future. Beyond that everything becomes abstract because we don’t get to experience any level of direction contact with the people living in that era.

Reading about the past without meeting the people that lived then is a hollow experience. It becomes anachronistic because we modify their world to fit ours. How we live and how we see ourselves. It doesn’t matter how hard you try, there is no chance you will ever be able to experience life in medieval Europe. And this is why mistakes made then will continue to be made now and into the future. If we can’t experience it, we can’t learn from it. This is what I mean by the paradox of intergenerational learning.

At some stage, for most people when they reach middle or old age, they begin to wonder about their family history. It’s rare for children to get engrossed in the details of ancestry. We tend to be focused on the here and now.

As we age and gain experience (a euphemism for collecting mistakes and hardships throughout life), many will turn to the past. They’ll wonder what am I? An example is the current fad with DNA testing. Let’s find out where I came from! A breakdown of, let’s say: 60% western European, 25% Irish, 10% Scottish, and 5% native American, sounds intriguing but says little about who you actually are. Likewise, knowing you’re descended from immigrants who moved to Australia in the nineteenth century, may sound romantic if they escaped adversity to become successful merchants in their new country. But that doesn’t mean you will also become a successful merchant, if you were to choose that path, because you can’t in any meaningful way learn from them.

My mother was mildly interested in past family, though only as far as those she could remember from her childhood. Her father died when she was only a teenager, so memories of time with her father froze at that point and remained very special to her. Beyond that the rest was rarely spoken of. Apart from saying – gosh wouldn’t it be nice to still own today the land they had back then. We’d all be rich! The fact there was a colonial stonemason even further back in the line, was of only passing interest to her.

If you’ve read my earlier post about computers writing novels, you’ll see that I’m interested in what the future holds. I think we can all agree that the future will in many ways be very different from the past. However, because of this intergenerational learning paradox, the future will also hold a great deal of what’s happened in the past. As the saying goes - history repeats. Our descendants will make the same mistakes we have. Not because they’ll be stupid, but because we won’t be there to warn them not to.

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May 15, 2022

Great read as always. And true too. I was very fortunate to have been born in a family of historians who also knew their own history. As a very young child, I remember my grandfather telling a story of one of our ancestors who survived Genghis Khan's tower of heads by writing a poem for him. Apparently he chopped off the heads of everyone in that particular town. That escape was not the only one. Another ancestor of ours survived something similar later on. I guess the story of my ancestors has always been one of survival. And I was no different. Being born in a family of historians also gave me the privilege of learning history very earl…

Ned Stephenson
Ned Stephenson
May 15, 2022
Replying to

Raven, what a wonderful reply! Thank you so much.

I suspect my father missed his true calling and should have been an historian as well. Without blinking he can recite, and then describe in detail, English ancestors back to the sixteenth century. After that he needs to dust down the books to recall the facts.

But for you to trace family stories back to the twelfth century is extraordinary!

Coincidently, I suspect you will enjoy my next book. There's a Genghis Khan story in there, would you believe 😉. As a teaser I might put it up on my website.

Thanks again.

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