Life of the Mind
Midcoast Senior College is one among over 400 independently functioning retirement-age lifelong learning experiences across North America. Retirees are eager for continued social activities that bring them together with their peers. Many crave intellectual stimulus and encouragement. Many wish to continue using a lifelong skill. Many desire to contribute something to the community beyond their own doors.
Programs of life-long learning speak to each of these needs, but these programs differ significantly from college-age education. Our volunteer retired faculty are co-learners who encourage among their peers what has been described as a “conversation among equals.” Faculty come from many experiences and not solely from teaching careers. Students are notably self-motivated and arrive at their weekly two-hour study-groups with enthusiasm to engage with courses in the humanities, social sciences, fine arts, and natural sciences. Early each semester, they come to feel themselves gathered in a community of eager learners, with ample discussion, agreement and disagreement, and insight. There are no examinations and no grades or credit hours earned. At semester’s end, faculty may suggest readings that invite students to continue to pursue topics of the course on their own. Thus, learning continues beyond the course at one’s own pleasure.
There are eighteen senior colleges in Maine, most are sponsored by a host campus. No two programs are alike. Bylaws guide our Board of Directors and standing committees, and their chosen membership is drawn from interested students who wish to offer their expertise and passion for the cause of this significant educational endeavor. Thus, here at the College retirement-age learners design and implement the educational experience which expresses their own values and interests.
|"Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours." John Locke
Who are We? – A Profile of Elderlearners
As a follow up to David’s thoughts on the Life of the Mind, Midcoast Senior College asked Lois Lamdin, a member of our Board and long-time devotee to elder education to share some of her expertise in adult non-traditional post-secondary education. The following three-part article is her response.
The prominent role continued learning plays in the aging process has become an integral part of our contemporary social and scientific wisdom. Educators, neuro-physiologists, science writers, gerontologists, and assorted commentators on socio-cultural affairs keep reminding us that pushing those old brains hard will have certain payoff. We are told, and we fervently believe, that continued use will help us avoid the pitfalls of ageing brain cells. Such wisdom as we have can be greatly enhanced by doing crossword puzzles, playing Scrabble, learning to play the piccolo, and struggling to make puff pastry.
This new wisdom was just beginning to emerge in the early 1990′s when, as an already aging college professor, I became impressed by the abilities of my newest students, many of whom were among the earlier older adults returning to learning. These students, graying or balding, occasionally making the newspaper headlines by graduating alongside their children and even grandchildren, astounded me by the energy and vigor with which they were pursuing college degrees. Intrigued, I decided to do some research on this new (to me, at least) phenomenon, which culminated a few years later in the publication of Elderlearning, New Frontier in an Aging Society.
I started with a curiosity about who these learners were, what statistics were available about their numbers, through what means they were pursuing learning, and a big WHY they were devoting so much energy to it. Absent an existing literature at the time, I began by designing a questionnaire – a long, complicated, four page instrument with 151 variables which Elderhostel and AARP volunteered to distribute to 3,600 people ranging in age from 55 to 96 years old.
The unprecedented response to this rather bloated document was higher than anyone had anticipated- a 25.3 percent return — it offered an invaluable cross section of geography (all 50 states are represented), income levels, and educational backgrounds. And although the ES asked for little beyond check-off answers, it called forth an unexpected outpouring of written responses, some long and detailed. Ignoring the usual anonymity of questionnaires, more than half of the respondents signed their names or put their addresses on the return envelope. The resultant data, had I been less naive, would have been catnip for an advertising industry that still shows woeful ignorance of the consumerist potential of this age cohort.
Some of the results were surprising, none more so than “Gender,” which was 32.8 % male and 67.2% female. The strong gender disparity cannot be explained by women’s survival rate alone (current demography for 65 and over would have predicted figure more like 58% women and 42% men), but in 1975 20% more women than men reported taking classes, and as you go down the socio-economic scale the disproportion becomes wider.
Further survey results may be less surprising, but simply confirm what we think we already know. Included are:
• Levels of Education
| Grade school
| High school
| 2-year college
| 4-year college
| Grad. or prof. school
• Health as Self-rated
You don’t grow old. When you cease to learn you are old.
In Part I, I wrote about some of the results of a national survey of the nature and extent of learning among the 55-96+ year old population, gathered for my book, published in 1997. As I continue this discussion of what I find to be the more interesting results of that survey, keep in mind that the statistics today would most likely be even greater in the direction of participation and involvement than those of 13 years ago.
To finish up what I was saying about WHO are learning, 57.9% were married, 28.4% widowed, and 18.7 % single or divorced. The average income (60%) was between $20 and $60 thousand. Only 17.6% of these men and women were still working, either full or part-time, including the self employed , 5.3%. The number reporting doing volunteer work was 72.9%, ranging from full-time, 2.6% to occasionally, 29.8 %. No real surprises here.
However, when we turn to the HOW of learning, learning styles and preferences, it becomes a bit more interesting. I, personally, was not surprised but certainly delighted to see Reading in first place as the preferred style 13 years ago, and suspect that it would retain its place today; but certainly if this study were to be replicated 1n 2010, the percentages for computer programs and the Internet as sources for learning would be significantly higher.
LEARNING STYLES AND PREFERENCES
| classes, seminars
||with friend or colleague
| group meetings
| hands-on activities
The WHERE statistics from 15 years ago have probably changed the most radically. Under the heading Learning Programs for Seniors, in 1973 Elderhostel came in first at 37%, followed by “Learning n Retirement Institutes,” 35.6%, a category that I’m not sure even exists today, though it may have morphed into Senior Colleges, in which case it would easily have topped the list. Other choices in this category were church study groups, local or city agencies, 55 Plus, and even alumni associations, but it is noteworthy that at that time higher education resources were not even mentioned as a viable category.
LEARNING ON YOUR OWN
| at home
||at work or volunteer activity
| through travel
| in libraries
||in nature centers
| in museums, galleries
A similar survey today would most probably retain “at home” in its first place, though again, the ubiquity of computer-generated learning would have boosted its lead even further. Home is not only where the heart is but we where we keep the computers that give us access to the whole digital world. The profundity of this change cannot be overestimated. Today computer-generated learning is responsible for bringing thousands of even homebound seniors into immediate contact with the intellectual riches which were formerly inaccessible to any but determined scholars.
There are more intriguing statistics grouped under “informal learning,” that learning which is either self-initiated and planned or takes place within an informal group that structures its own learning projects (e.g., book clubs, foreign language or investment clubs, informal groups of artists or film or opera buffs, people interested in group philanthropy, senior centers, etc.) where the content and learning resources are chosen and pursued by the participants themselves rather than by a formally organized organization. It might be an interesting experience to repeat this question today.
The amount of time actually spent in informal learning came as a pleasant surprise when the results of the earlier survey were revealed. It turned out that the estimated hours per month ranged from 1-300, but the mean was 27.86 hours and the median 20. However, the question itself was, and still is, a difficult one. How many of us have ever even thought of counting the hours we spend in learning on our own? Yet, 78.5% of those participating in the survey took time to answer this strange new question, and many others wrote things like “varies,” “many,” “impossible to figure out,” or “lots and lots” tantalizing hints that the numbers could have been even higher. These hints became especially frustrating when the same people who refused to be pinned down to numbers wrote narratives about learning projects of significant breadth and depth that sounded as though they would have consumed enormous amounts of time.
To understand what distinguished those who do a lot of learning from those who do not, we looked at the upper 25 percent and the lower 25 percent of both formal and informal learners (high learners and low learners) to see what variables could predict their level of learning. The most consistent thing we found was the number of items they had checked for “What You Choose to Learn. Those who checked the greatest number of items turned out to be high learners, formal and informal; those who checked the fewest were among the low learners.
Moreover, the high and low learning levels in turn correlated not with age or income or even health but with the amount of education completed. Hardly a surprise. We all recognize that the more you know, the more you want to know.
And, finally, WHAT did respondents say they were learning, and WHY? This is, of course, the crucial question for those who must make the decisions about what Senior College can and should offer. In answering the WHAT and WHY, our Curriculum Committee might ponder the following charts:
WHAT AM I LEARNING?
|music, art, dance, arts-related crafts
|travel or travel-related
|literature, drama, humanities
|politics, foreign affairs, current events
|history, family history, genealogy
|philosophy, religion, self-actualization
|computers, computer programs, new technologies
|finances, financial planning, investing
|sports, leisure or recreation
|nature, biological sciences
|writing, journalism, journal keeping
| gardening or agriculture
| languages or multi-cultural learning
| environment or environment-related studies
| field of current or previous career
| physical sciences (astronomy, geology, etc.)
| community development or community building
| building, construction, home repair
| learning for a new career
However, for me at least, the most compelling statistics conveyed in this early survey were the responses to the “WHY” of elderlearning.
WHY AM I LEARNING?
|for the joy of learning
|to pursue a long standing interest or hobby
|to meet people, socialize
|to engage in creative activity
|to pursue new interest or hobby
|to fill time productively
|related to search for meaning and wisdom
|to fill blanks in previous education
|to fulfill community service purpose
|to help in my present job
|to prepare for a new job/career
|to fulfill community service purpose
The “joy of learning” was, and most probably still is, clearly the hands-down winner. People starred it or circled it, put multiple exclamation points after it, wrote “This is number one,” rank ordered it first (although the instructions said nothing about rank ordering) or simply checked nothing else. “Joy” held its high ranking even when correlated with age (which lowered the other percentages but barely fazed this one).
The really difficult question, the one that stopped many in their tracks and made them think, concerned how many actual hours per month they were spending in activities connected with learning. Well, 13 years ago respondents came up with the following numbers:
Hours per month spent in Formal Learning: Mean 17.47 Median 12.00
Hours per month spent in Informal Learning: Mean 27.86 Median 20.00
If you are a member of Senior College you must take your own learning activities seriously. How many hours do you spend per month on formal and informal learning? Are you a heavy learner or a light weight? Your numbers may surprise you, but more important, how much do you enjoy learning? It’s addictive, isn’t it?
The good news about an aging society
Let’s start with the facts. By now, at the end of a particularly gloomy election season, we have been inundated with jeremiads about the aging of America, about the dire fiscal results of expanded Medicare and Social Security spending, and about their likely (and unlikely) ruinous effects on the national budget. Well, let’s talk about the good news for a change, which neither party seems to have spent much real time considering.
We have, as has Europe and a few other advanced regions and countries, a well educated population. We are an aging society, a civilized one to be sure, but certainly aging, as birth rates have gone down and we, the oldest, are living longer and being blamed for it – for how expensive we are becoming, and for consuming more than our share of financial and health resources.
But we, the blamed, are arguably also the potential source of much good news for our society, good news that is barely visible at the moment in the media and in newspapers and books, which we continue to read. Perhaps our generation has at least one positive function – we are still reading - preserving print literacy for our great-great grandchildren against the cyber-centric war on reading. But rather than defend ourselves against the jeremiads of the populace , let us look instead at the ways in which our stubborn devotion to books and learning is of benefit to ourselves and, I contend, for all of society.
First, by continuing to learn, we are challenging the old stereotypes that equate age with “losing one’s marbles,” with entering second childhood, with inevitably becoming either forgetful or senile or victims of the very real diseases of the brain that do imperil too many older people. By continuing to learn we are, according to new and exciting scientific research, working to prevent those very stereotypes.
Modern brain science has established (and we are proof) that we ARE able to learn, that growth and development have no age limits but are critical for the health and well-being of older men and women. The old belief that the brain synapses that make learning possible cease functioning in older brains has been disproved by new brain scan techniques. In fact, new research methodologies have turned the old arguments around. Just as physicians are promoting bodily exercise as a hedge against bodily decline, brain researchers are promoting mental exercise as a hedge against brain decline. Science tells us that an intellectually active brain is more likely to remain a healthy brain and that the committed elderlearner is likely to retain the brain health of his or her younger self.
Moreover, if our continued learning helps us individually to remain actively engaged with our life and times, it is also a boon for society at large. We, who continue to be able to think and act on our own, can effectively diminish the need for our children’s time and concern and for the social services and health networks, to think and act on our behalf. Let’s look back at some of the statistics from earlier segments of this article:
Those 17.6 seniors who are still working, either full or part-time, or who are running their own businesses, are clearly contributing to the national economy.
Those older citizens who spend the most time learning – those from 55 to 94 years old who rate themselves as in excellent health or good health – a composite 80.6% – are an obvious boon to their families, to society at large, and specifically to curbing the expense of Medicare.
The 36.7% of us who say they are learning more in the fields of politics, foreign affairs and current events are better informed voters and participants in government.
The 72.9 % who report strong activity as volunteers are reducing the costs of social support from both government and social service agencies.
And finally, there is compelling evidence from among a number of colleges (including Bowdoin College on whose main frame computer these statistics were run) that older students auditing courses have the positive effect of inspiring the undergraduates to more active involvement in class discussion and greater respect for the benefits of learning itself.
We senior learners have internalized these benefits. “Use it or lose it” is a holistic prescription for body and mind, for the individual and for society at large. Our children can spend less time baby-sitting their parents and more time enjoying their company. Our doctors can trust us to engage with our own dietary and health precautions, to take the right number of our prescribed medications at the right time and to spend our leisure hours in healthy participation in exercise and life enhancing social activities. Our communities have more time and resources available for those most needing their help. And the politicians may eventually learn that we are not as expensive as they thought – and even nice to have around to remind them of some human values that are not expendable.