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The Upside of Aging: How Long Life Is Changing the World of Health, Work, Innovation, Policy and Purpose by Paul Irving

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Chapter 11 Aging and Learning: The Future University

Steven Knapp

President, The George Washington University; Co-Chair, Age-Friendly DC Task Force

The new reality of an older, relatively healthy population can be expected to shape universities in three major ways: as an object of study, a source of students, and a source of participants in teaching and research.

“That is no country for old men . . .”

These days I run a university, but I was trained many years ago as a scholar of literature. I had been gripped, while young, by the power of poetry. Today, as I consider how the dramatic extension of the human life span is likely to transform universities as we know them, I am struck by the recollection that the first poem that really moved me, oddly enough, was a poem about aging.

Its intriguing title was “Sailing to Byzantium,” and it recounted the imaginary voyage of an aging poet to an ancient city (the long-ago precursor of modern-day Istanbul) where, according to this poet, works of art were more important than physical embodiment. Here, in the opening stanza, the poet casts his feeling of alienation from physicality and sexuality as a state of exile from what he calls the “country” of the young:

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees—

Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that ...

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