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Cultivating Curiosity at Any Age

Lifelong learning programs let you take classes you wish you had in college


Many years after he first started college, Todd Makler is back in school and happy to be there. Makler, 72, is currently a student in the Stanford Continuing Studies Program and takes courses every quarter at the Palo Alto university. A retired physician who relocated to California from Philadelphia in 2010, Makler was looking for a rigorous academic program.

“Moving here and not knowing people, taking continuing courses was an obvious thing for me,” said Makler. “I’ve taken a number of courses on literature, and last fall I took a course on Greek philosophy, ‘Ancient Wisdom: Classical Greek Thinking from Homer to Socrates,’ as well as ‘Great Republics: Lessons from History,’ a course on the experience of various republics over the last 2,000 years and what has caused problems in the forms of governance.”

Makler has taken all his Stanford Continuing Studies courses alongside his 97-year-old father, as well as a few with his wife. “We’re interested in the material, and this gives us something to talk about other than politics and the stock market,” Makler said.

A Stimulating Curriculum

Through the Continuing Studies Program, Stanford University’s rich educational resources are able to be shared with adult students.

“Since its inception in 1988, more than 1,000 Stanford faculty and academic staff have taught in the program, joined by carefully-recruited artists, journalists, business people and academics from neighboring institutions,” said Dan Colman, director and associate dean. “This unique program helps to nurture a vibrant living community and promote the pleasures of intellectual exploration.”

The Stanford Continuing Studies Program offers approximately 600 courses per year, attracting 18,000 students annually. “Our students range in age from the 20s to the 90s with the average in the mid-40s, and courses meet on Stanford’s campus in the evenings or on a Saturday,” Colman says. “We now offer a growing number of online courses; about 25 percent of our curriculum is offered online, providing lifelong learners access to our courses, even if they don’t live in the San Francisco Bay area.”

The goal is to provide a complete array of courses for students as they move through life. “If you want to learn a new language or learn to paint; if you want to immerse yourself in history, literature or philosophy; or if you want to learn what’s happening in the new worlds of artificial intelligence and data science, we offer courses that you can take at a fairly affordable price,” Colman said.

Challenging the Mind

The Wesleyan Institute for Lifelong Learning (WILL) at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. is a non-credit based, short-term academic program that meets on campus. “We serve approximately 300 students per year — a nice mixture of young professionals as well as retired folks who want to roll up their sleeves in a Shakespeare class or get their brain moving in a theater class,” said Richard Friswell, who directs the program.

An example of a WILL class is ‘Civil Rights, Civil Wrongs, Minorities and the American Dream 1935-1968,’ drawing a number of community experts on socially active programs to serve on a panel. ‘A Tour of the Universe and How We Got Here’ takes place in the campus observatory. “For that class, students spend the day in several lectures on astrophysics and when it gets dark, they head into the observatory and look into the heavens,” Friswell said.

Sue Weston, 58, of West Hartford, Conn., works in talent development and has taken five classes through WILL. “My favorite was ‘Meet Me at Les Deux Magots: The Lost Generation in 1920s Paris,’” she said. “I love Paris as a city and for its art and history, and I knew the class would continue to build on what I already knew and loved about the city.”

Weston appreciates the opportunity to always keep learning. “WILL classes are one of the outlets that keep me balanced and challenge my mind in a different way than work does,” she said. “The participants are diverse and bring their own knowledge and points of view to the class which adds another element that I also enjoy. And often after taking a class, I find that I have a list of books to read or topics to look into further, so for me, the learning continues even after the class is over.”

The Benefits of Being an Older Student

WILL instructor Herb Arnold has been a professor at Wesleyan since 1962, retiring in 2006. “I was teaching in a program called the College of Letters which was one of the earliest interdisciplinary programs for undergraduates in the United States, combining history, literature and philosophy,” Arnold said.

For the past 10 years, Arnold has taught a WILL course each spring. “I’ll take one major work by a major author and give the context for it, an introduction to that period,” he said. “If I do Machiavelli, then we’ll study the political and historical background over five or six weeks. One basic text to read plus suggested reads. Just discussion, no papers.”

After a career of teaching undergrads, Arnold appreciates having “grownups” to talk to in class.

“Dissecting Dante’s Divine Comedy — ‘in the middle of my life I find myself in a dark wood’ — undergrads, they have no clue what this means,” Arnold said. “People who are in their 50s or 60s or retired, they know what the middle of life is: it’s behind them.”

Besides the obvious benefits of remaining intellectually alive, lifelong learning courses have the power of enhancing lives in a unique way. “A student will tell me, ‘Look, I became a lawyer; I knew there were all these wonderful things out there to learn, but I never had the time to do it,” Arnold said.

He also notes that taking a course is different than just catching up on reading. “It’s the whole process, how to approach such material and the introduction to a period or a genre,” Arnold said. “And they can find out why people were always talking about this guy Dante.”

By Debbie Musser
Debbie Musser is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys digging in and researching health topics. She most recently was editor of Woodbury Magazine in Woodbury, Minn., where she resides, following a 25-year career in public relations and corporate communications in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

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