Back in college for a day

One Day University featuring favorite Ivy League professors rejuvenates lifelong learners.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Larry Luddecke's college days ended more than three decades ago, but his love of learning continues unabated. So when his wife gave him a birthday card this month, he was intrigued by her handwritten message: "Happy Birthday. You're going to college."

In this case "college" serves as shorthand for an unusual event called One Day University. Thanks to his wife's gift, Mr. Luddecke, a musician in Arlington, Mass., is one of 140 students spending a sunny mid-June Saturday at Mt. Ida College in Newton, Mass., listening to top-ranked professors from Ivy League schools deliver their most popular lectures.

This is no ordinary gathering of undergraduates. A majority of those in the audience are, like Luddecke, in their 50s. As baby boomers and retirees, they are here to play students-for-a-day. It's a chance to indulge their nostalgia for their college years and revel in the heady world of new ideas.

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"My father was a lifelong learner," Luddecke says, clutching a pen and blue notebook in the Mt. Ida auditorium. "I think I got it from him."

As cofounder Steven Schragis welcomes the group, he jokes, "You will not be receiving a degree today from Columbia, Harvard, Brown, or Dartmouth." What they will receive is intellectual stimulation during four 70-minute classes on everything from 'Moby Dick' to the science of happiness, politics, and neuroscience.

The year-old venture, offering classes in seven cities in the Northeast, reflects a burgeoning interest in lifelong learning. As those in midlife and beyond enroll in everything from adult education classes to university extension courses and Elderhostel programs, they are feeding a hunger for an active intellectual life. Instead of a condo on the ninth green, some are choosing housing on or near a college campus, where they can take advantage of classes and cultural activities.

The demand for such experiences is growing as the baby boom generation matures. Nearly half of American adults – 46 percent – will enroll in continuing-education courses this year, according to the US Department of Education.

Lifelong learning a big business

That adds up to a $6 billion business annually, according to Learning Resources Network, a Wisconsin-based consulting group. The firm projects that the industry will reach $8 billion by 2011.

"Just because you're getting older doesn't mean there isn't something new to learn," says Barbara Lofblad, who traveled from Gilford, N.H., to Newton for the event. "Everything I'm hearing today is new."

Mr. Schragis traces the inspiration for One Day University to November 2005, when he visited his daughter, a college freshman, on her campus in upstate New York. As part of the Family Weekend activities, several instructors gave parents 20- to 30-minute samples of their classes.

"Everyone was fascinated," Schragis recalls. "Parents said, 'I'd rather be going to college than paying for college.' "

From that, the concept for One Day University was born. Schragis, former director of the Learning Annex, joined forces with journalist John Galvin to seek out top professors. They researched websites and student-evaluation surveys. They talked to students and even attended classes. Their faculty now numbers about 50.

"They're not famous, except on their own campuses," Schragis says. "We thought, if students are so enamored, maybe others would be, too."

With a few exceptions, those attending these events are no longer focused on raising young families. As Schragis explains, "A lot of 30- or 40-year-olds say, 'I would love to do that, but I can't. I have to take the kids to ballet.' " Women typically account for more than half of those enrolled. Participants pay $219, with a discount for two people.

The first event last fall at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. marked an inauspicious beginning, but for a reason that had nothing to do with academics. The stumbling block? Parking. There was little.

Now most classes are held in suburban locations: Old Westbury, N.Y.; Westchester, N.Y.; Morristown, N.J.; Fairfield, Conn.; West Hartford, Conn.; and Wellesley, Mass. Another will be held in New York City. New courses are offered every five to seven weeks at each site.

Referring to these adult students, Schragis says, "There's a type. A lot are retired. If they are not retired, they are not totally caught up in their career. They're not coming on Saturday and thinking they're going to make more money on Monday. The type of person who thinks that spending most of a weekend day in a classroom would be a good use of time and money obviously has a respect for education."

That could describe Cheryl Taustin, who came from Ocean City, Md., to attend One Day University. "With lifelong learning, you're keeping your mind active," she says. "I may not climb Mt. Everest, but I look forward to learning about anything in the world."

On this Saturday in Newton, that learning begins with a lecture on "Moby Dick," given by Andrew Delbanco, director of American studies at Columbia University. As he traces the life and times of Herman Melville, many in the audience take notes.

" 'Moby Dick' is implicitly a political book," he tells the group. "The brute facts of American life were not airbrushed out of it." Later, he explains that his favorite passage for reading aloud is a chapter titled "Nantucket." "Melville had never been to Nantucket," he says. "You could describe this chapter as a great cadenza."

Shawn Achor of Harvard University follows with a lecture on happiness. His course, "Positive Psychology and the Science of Happiness," is the most popular class at Harvard.

"The way you think about yourself has physical manifestations in your life," he tells the audience. "There's something very important in consciously trying to be happier. If you want to see the world a happier place, the best place to start is with yourself."

After a buffet lunch, students regroup to hear Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I., discuss Congress and politics. "I believe 2008 will be a ground-shifting election for Republicans and Democrats," she says.

Then, her voice brimming with enthusiasm, she says, "You know what's great about this audience? I can make a reference and you'll understand." The group laughs.

That shared knowledge represents one of the benefits for professors here.

"I enjoy the different audiences," says Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, a philosophy professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and the final speaker of the day. "I learn from their perspectives, their life experiences, their feedback."

More like peers than students

Mr. Galvin, cofounder of One Day University, adds, "It's stimulating for them to interact with their peers. The political science professors can talk about Ronald Reagan and have people know what they're talking about. They've devoted their whole career to researching, studying, and sharing this knowledge. It's to a large extent bottled up with a lot of 18-year-olds with their baseball cap on backwards. To talk to 150 interested adults who are there only for the reason of learning, it's exhilarating."

For many here, One Day University represents only the latest in a succession of continuing education ventures.

Calling his learning "not structured," Luddecke notes that one of his educational pursuits involves languages. "I bought a learn-Spanish tape to listen to in my car," he says.

Ms. Lofblad, who winters in Florida, enjoys attending lectures on foreign policy. And last month, Ms. Taustin completed a for-credit course on environmental issues at a university in Florida, an experience she calls "exhilarating."

That attitude runs in her family. "Our kids are all exploring things they want to do, and they're passionate about," she says. "My husband is exploring new businesses. He also took a week and went to culinary school. My challenge is learning and seeing new parts of the world."

Luddecke, reveling in the chance this Saturday classroom offers him to "get the mind going again," says of the professors, "They're giving me trails to follow, books to read, names to Google – all sorts of things."

Voicing her own determination to keep abreast of new ideas, Lofblad says, "People who are learning stay younger. Our kids are learning so much these days. We have to be able to speak their language. I'm not going to be left behind."

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