Beyond the Group: A Learning Community

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written by Ellen Freudenheim, MPH

Fads come and go. And among a certain set of baby Boomers, learning for the sake of learning is considered cool. In fact, way cool.

From California to Maine tens of thousands of men and women over fifty are going back to school, studying Chinese, debating Charlie Chaplin’s politics and reading Salman Rushdie. They’re doing it not to advance careers, or to acquire skills for starting a new business venture—but because formal learning is their main hobby.

Beyond simply enrolling for the random course on, say, Shakespeare, Boomers are experimenting with a new concept in education: so-called peer education programs. Instead of sitting in a class with someone young enough to be your son or daughter—or sitting alone reading all day— these classes are designed for people age fifty and above.

Lifelong learning for mature students have proven successful in over 40 states. They’re based at hundreds of college and university campuses, ranging from brand name institutions such as Harvard and Carnegie Mellon universities to local community colleges. (Similar programs geared to Boomers have popped up in Canada, the UK, Australia and France, too—and all have grown rapidly in the past decade.)

What’s the allure? They offer a combo package: intellectual stimulation, the chance to meet and learn with others of more or less the same generation, and the kind of hands-on management often associated with running a small business or non-profit organization. Plus, airing one’s views—and having others really listen— can be just plain exhilarating.

For instance, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at American University (OLLI) in Washington, DC, offers university level courses. But it’s members, not administrators, who select the courses. Members also lead seminars, organizing course content and leading discussions. Because lifelong learning programs are free-standing non-profit organizations, not a university department, members taking care of administrative details, too, staffing everything from long-range planning to answering the phones.

Going back to school –to feed the mind, not for a practical degree—can become nearly a full time occupation. People make new friends and what started as a class morphs into dining out, travel, and outside cultural expeditions.

Plus, being a student becomes a new identity of sorts. Students who once introduced themselves as professionals, educators, executives, and leaders in their community describe themselves first as “school junkies.” They talk in earnest about their passion for learning.

Education begets a thirst for more, and as the educational level of Americans rises steadily, increasing numbers of Boomers will likely fuel demand for more, and more varied, learning opportunities. And of course, there’s plenty of evidence that intellectual stimulation is good for maintaining physical and mental health.

And, the price is right. Enrollment for up to three classes costs less than $400, and sometimes enables mature students to gain access to other college facilities, such as the gym and library.