Where curiosity and intellect never retire

Life experience and lifelong dreams meld in liberal-arts programs for senior citizens

Bob Palter is not what you'd call a typical college student. He wears a coat and tie, and can vividly recall the poignancy of Pearl Harbor, watching his uncles and cousins go off to war.

Mr. Palter is semiretired and earning a history degree at the University of Massachusetts. He's also studying at the Brandeis Adult Learning Institute (BALI), a new liberal-arts program for seniors.

Palter is part of a growing group of retired or semiretired and highly educated people trading golf bags for book bags. They are motivated by a love of ideas and a desire to remain as sharp and active as they were when they attended school the first time around. With careers and child-rearing behind them, this population - the fastest-growing in America - has the time and energy to let new or long-lost interests lead them, and to interact with peers who share similar goals.

"They're not interested in basket-weaving,... or just rocking on their front porch. They want a change of scenery and more stimulation," says Bernard Reisman, who recently retired from Brandeis University as a professor and is the founder of BALI.

About 300 colleges and universities have responded to the interests of older adults by offering semester-long programs with courses in literature, music, science, philosophy, religion, and history. And some 2.5 million people age 65 and older participate in a form of organized adult education, a number that's growing, according to Ronald Manheimer, director of the North Carolina Community Center for Creative Retirement.

Often curriculum is driven by students, and everyone is expected to actively participate. BALI and other local programs at Harvard, Boston College, and Tufts, aim to attract members who will become "peer mentors," students who take courses but also plan and lead them. The cost is low or even free because class leaders are volunteers. In BALI's nondegree program, the 275 students pay $250 for two 10-week classes, which meet weekly.

I always wanted to learn about ...

Palter was always interested in history and film, but he couldn't squeeze them in as an MIT engineering student. Now he finds time to read books like "Walter Lippmann and the American Century" by Ronald Steel, write papers, and research the Holocaust. He says he might teach high school history after graduating.

"There's a whole wealth of learning that I had never been exposed to,... everything from the Ottoman Empire to the internment of Japanese-Americans," he says.

Dr. Reisman launched BALI this year, and it has generated an overwhelmingly positive response. The program now has a waiting list for classes, which include "The rise and fall of fascism in Italy," "The writings of Henry James," and "Astronomy: An introduction to the solar system."

The availability of good peer mentors influences which classes are offered, Reisman says. Class leaders sometimes have little teaching experience, but bring a wealth of expertise. An Italian history teacher, for instance, lived in Italy under Mussolini's fascist regime. This spring, a minister raised in Denmark might teach a course on Scandinavian literature.

Social interactions are important, too, students say, because they contribute to a sense of belonging.

"Many have lost spouses and friends, and their kids have moved away or are too busy to spend time with them. This is a wonderful way of meeting people with similar interests," says Nancy Sack, who teaches the BALI class on Henry James.

Classes are clustered near a large room students call "the gathering place." Sitting around tables there, men and women sip drinks, munch on snacks, and discuss what they've learned. One group laughs and chats about politics and writing assignments. Though no grades are given, they agree the reading homework is heavy.

"I've learned how much I didn't know, and how much more I want to know," says Louise Freedman, a retired school librarian. Her class on religious fundamentalism and politics examined the historical impact of the Bible's Book of Revelation and viewed paintings of the Apocalypse.

"I took the Christianity class because I wanted to understand the right wing better," she says. The class ties together "the pieces I've studied in history - racism, ethnic cleansing, anti-Semitism, and fundamentalism. I'm trying to understand it and be more tolerant."

The teacher, Sam Starobin, a former engineer and Army officer, had never taught. Leading the class is rewarding, he says, because it forces him to "dig deeper." Preparation takes 10 to 12 hours a week.

During an afternoon literature class, students sit in a circle discussing "The Ambassadors" by Henry James. They share insights, read passages, and analyze characters. Ms. Sack, a retired high school English teacher, says she hopes her teaching helps them "to understand the subtleties of first-class literature and to [read] more perceptively than they had before."

A new kind of student-teacher

At Harvard's Institute for Learning and Retirement, the approach is similar to BALI's, but there's slightly more emphasis on students taking on teaching roles, too. It's one of the oldest such programs, created in 1977. Former lawyers, teachers, artists, and homemakers lead specialized courses like "Chaos Theory." There are mid-term evaluations, and students typically are expected to read at least six hours a week, says director Leonie Gordon. Only about 15 membership slots open annually.

One driving force in these programs is the benefit of hindsight. Judy Cohen, a retired teacher and a BALI student, says her approach to learning has changed since she originally attended Brandeis in the 1950s. "When you are 20 years old, you [think you] are never going to get older," she says. "Now learning is for learning's sake. I'm loving every minute of it."

E-mail comments to cooks@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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