Lifelong Learning -- the gift of college all over again

On any weekday morning in 400 or more college classrooms throughout the United States, groups of students ages 60, 70, 80 years old and more, are listening to lectures, participating in discussions, or researching issues on such scholarly subjects such as "The Golden Age of Spain," "Shostakovich and his Time," or "Class and Conflict in England."

These men and women have discovered that the joy of learning does not disappear with age but on the contrary, has proved to be a treasured resource for the years following their retirement.

"Lifelong Learning," the term now used to designate this phenomenon, is one of the great resources now available to older men and women seeking to find productive use of their later years.

To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, college is a wonderful thing, it’s a shame it is wasted on youth. For college-bound students, so much of their studies is devoted to preparation for careers that many of the courses which might appeal to their natural curiosity must be set aside.

What the men and women involved in Lifelong Learning have discovered is that their retired years are the perfect time to return to the classroom and indulge their curiosity to their hearts’ content.

The first Lifelong Learning program was created 50 years ago by a group of school teachers in New York who wanted to continue the studies that had enriched their working years even though they were now retired.

Called "the Institute for Retired Professionals," they were sponsored by The New School (then known as The New School for Social Research). Since then, college and universities throughout the country have been asked by groups of retired people to create similar programs.

The Elder Hostel organization, created in 1975, began by offering summer courses for older citizens in colleges. By 1980, more than 20,000 were participating in their programs. Today it specializes in travel programs designed to provide significant learning experiences to older men and women. Of the approximately 400 programs throughout the country 117 are Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes which are funded by the Osher Foundation.

Lifelong Learning should not be confused with what's generically called "adult education." The usual Adult Education program is open to a wide variety of students and the level of teaching can vary from basic English to crafts and art programs, while Lifelong Learning classes are rigorous investigations of scholarly material on the college level and are open only to people who are over a certain age -- usually 60 years old.

The surge of retirements which will occur as the so-called Baby Boomers reach 65, should bring about a significant increase in the need for activities to appeal to this population; Lifelong Learning programs offer the treasure of learning for no better reason than to know more about the world in which we live.

Carol Schoen lives in New York City where she is an active participant in Lifelong Learning programs.