Take Note. It's Back to School

Most of the chairs were full when I reached the lecture room at the Baker Center in downtown Eugene. Parking had delayed me.

For several years, I pulled into an assigned parking space outside this building when it housed The Register-Guard newspaper. I climbed the back stairs to my desk in the second-floor newsroom. I knew where I was going.

But now I fumbled for parking-meter quarters and fretted about arriving late for the first day of school! I was heading back to the classroom for University of Oregon prof Mark Johnson’s talk on the power of metaphor to change my life.

Metaphors! How could I miss this presentation—me, a confessed wordy wont to quip that metaphors fall unbidden at my feet. The talk was part of a fall “Day of Discovery” event introducing educational opportunities for students 50 and older at the UO Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

I slipped into a back row chair and joined about 80 listeners as Johnson tossed my understanding of metaphors in the air and juggled the concept so skillfully my eyes widened in amazement. This was fun!

And that, of course, is the goal of adult education. To return us to the eager openness that can emerge in the process of learning.

”As a senior, the tendency is to close down ones life,” says David Kolb, council president for the Eugene-Springfield OLLI-UO program. “We are trying to pry it open. Stop reading Facebook so much. Get beyond Time Magazine. Ask questions.”

The crowbar worked for me. My mind was bubbling as I left the metaphors lecture that had drawn me to the University of Oregon’s Baker Downtown Center.

After Summer comes School

I was energized with the buzz of a fresh point of view and wondered what I’d been missing in the years since I put structured classrooms behind me. In those years, school was a proscribed prelude to life—a training program for the bigger things to come.

Now, I felt a pull back to the classroom. To reconnect with the bigger things of life that loom as the span of life grows briefer.

Maybe it was our long, dry summer that left me longing for this change. By September, an unusually strong back-to-school urge had aligned with my eagerness to clear cobwebs from my head and home.

Even before the Osher lecture, I responded to the call of a symbolic school bell and signed up for a month-long Insight Seminar, another University of Oregon adult education program.

The goal of Insight Seminars, says retired UO English professor Jim Earl, is on-campus seminars in which mature learners explore “meaning of life” questions through month-long programs guided by experienced faculty.

“When you get to retirement age, these questions are not just talk anymore,” says Earl, 70. Earl helped found the Insight Seminars in 2003 and oversaw the program for ten years.

“I thought people needed a way to return to college in adulthood, in an adult way,” he says. Although the OLLI-UO adult education program offered educational opportunities for adults, Earl believed there was room for a more academic approach.

“I want to create a college-level​ classroom with the electricity, the level of conversation that is just a little over your head so you have to stretch,” he says.

“I like it when people grab their heads and moan, ‘Oh, I haven’t thought like that for years.’”

This month, I’m feeling that stretch, as I push myself through the required reading for Earl’s four-week seminar on works of American author Marilynne Robinson.

Three novels in a month! 826 pages! And it’s not just casual reading. Earl expects careful, in-depth study and active participation in Saturday morning classes in the UO library.

I’d already read one of the three required books which allowed me to imagine I could manage the remaining two in the allotted time. I pushed aside the awful truth that I tend to forget the book I’ve just read as soon as I start another.

It’s new for me, this zest for structured study. It isn’t exactly “school” in terms of demands or duration. No report cards or written papers. But no doubt about it, these programs will fire up a few dosing neurons.

Retirement can't Silence a Teacher

But what’s in it for the teachers? For the retired professors and volunteers who feed the programs with energy, information, and commitment.

“It’s a way to be intellectually alive with people who have similar interests,” says David Kolb, 76, retired philosophy professor and former Dean of the Department of Philosophy at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.

Kolb and his wife moved to Eugene in 2006. Both were retired from professional positions and ready to relocate in an area with a milder climate, a university and an active community. The OLLI program, he says, was an influence as they selected a new home.

“I like to be challenged,” he tells me when we meet to chat over cups of hot chocolate and coffee. “Curiosity is a big part for me.”

Kolb’s curiosity as a philosopher led him into professional study of the influence architecture and community traditions have on human identity.

All of us, he believes, young and old, are meant to live in community, learning and contributing to one another. It is in connection with others, he insists, that we find our own identity.

That philosophical position may explain Kolb’s eager leap into this community nine years ago. He promptly assumed roles in his neighborhood association and in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. He began co-hosting a philosophy salon twice a month for participants at OLLI-UO and this year accepted leadership of the organization.

Quickly, it becomes obvious to me that Kolb has now brought the salon to Starbucks. He has assumed the role of teacher, pulling research papers from a briefcase for me to read at home. Drawing me into lively consideration of philosophical questions that had never crossed my mind.

“I have a service mode—helping people out,” he responds when I ask what feeds this energy and commitment, even in retirement.

Before entering Yale University for a doctorate degree in philosophy, Kolb spent twelve years in a Jesuit seminary, contemplating life in a religious community. Eventually, he chose life outside that spiritual body, a life of service to the larger community of humankind.

“It’s likely that whatever brought me into the Jesuits was already a commitment to service,” he says.

Both Kolb and Earl are irrepressible teachers. They share a profound pleasure in thinking, learning, listening and discussion. They delight in igniting curiosity and provoking second thoughts.

Separation seems to emerge, not in commitment or dedication, but in the structure that defines two different approaches to adult education.

OLLI-UO, located at the Baker Downtown Center, offers a community setting for classes led sometimes by academicians and sometimes by members. On-going interest groups provide informal stimulation and social connection. Members assist with set up and support for programs.

Insight Seminars brings students to the UO campus to resurrect the experience of college days. Through lectures, reading and discussions, academic professionals urge students to dig deep into subjects drawn from history, music, literature, or religion.

Jim Earl, who retired two years ago after 28 years as a professor in the UO English Department, now calls Insight Seminars his “retirement project.”

“I need deadlines and structure to accomplish things and this is my major structure now,” he says. “It takes a lot of time to teach. I put a lot into these classes.”

When he wraps up the literature seminar I’m taking this month, he’ll dig out the works of Greek historian Herodotus and prepare for a February class on the 5th century writer’s story of the Persian Wars.

Students will be reading “The Histories” in English but Earl plans to study the text in Greek as well, just to brush up on details of translation.

For Earl, the payback is the intellectual challenge that comes with teaching adults, and the structure that forces his own disciplined preparation for each class.

“My passion has always been for this audience,” he says. “It’s the best of teaching. People are hungry for reading and discussion and when you finish a class, they thank you. That is not the case with most college classes.”

For participants, this may be the best of learning too—meaningful programs aimed at students who bring age, experience, and hard-earned wisdom to the classroom.

But don’t look for me in the Herodotus sessions!

Carolyn Scott Kortge, of Eugene, is a former Register-Guard editor and writer, and author of “The Spirited Walker.” Contact her at spiritedwalker@gmail.com

#JamesEarl #DavidKolb #adulteducation

Not the Retiring Type

by Carolyn Kortge

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