A sixty-five year old man sits in his cluttered living room and fumbles to change the channel. He peers over at the photo of his grandchildren and wonders what the next stage of his life entails. Retired from his law practice or factory job, he readies himself to pursue any path he desires. The prospect of a new life has always intrigued him, and with his new found freedom, his curiosity can guide him.
For a while now, colleges have offered opportunities for senior citizens to either audit, or pay for college classes to further an education that they may not have had the opportunity to have in the past. Encouraging an older demographic that strays from the normal age adds a certain dimensionality to the learning process that would otherwise be nonexistent. Older students offer experience and wisdom. They also provide different viewpoint or life lens that younger students may look through in order to gain varying perspectives on the field of study.
A woman, much younger than her years, sits on the bench in the Henry Barnard Building at Central Connecticut State University. The light from the last November afternoon illuminates her golden bob as the twinkle in her eye glimmers. “I’m 67. I’m a teacher, a wife, a mother. I’m retired-semi [and] I go to school for me,” states Ellen Seltzer, a student currently auditing a creative nonfiction writing class.
How many times can you clean a tiny house? So, I said, I want to do something for me.
She looks at this opportunity to explore all the world has to offer without degree requirements to consider; she can hand-pick classes that better serve her interests. “When I retired, even though I had a part-time job, I was bored. I was very unfulfilled. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was gaining weight [and] I was gobbling up the books; that’s all I did was read. How many times can you clean a tiny house? So, I said, I want to do something for me.” She looks around as the other students flutter to and from their classes, oppressed by the inexplicable heat on this unusually warm afternoon.
The idea of being a perpetual student and a dedicated, lifelong learner continues to flower in the United States because academic resources and classes are so readily available. The fact that she has enjoyed her time learning truly embodies the true joy of learning. “I want to say for the record, that my joy in taking this course is infectious. All of my friends, after they say ‘how’s school?’, they don’t mean school teaching; they mean Central.” An AARP study done on Lifelong Learners showed that “10% of senior citizens enrolled in classes, 53% think a formal teacher-classroom situation are among the best ways to learn, and that 91% agree learning is for the simple joy of learning.” Seltzer shifts her position as her eyes follow a young student gliding by on her way out the door. A gust of wind skips in the door and ruffles Seltzer’s hair. “My husband got so jealous that he decided to take a course at Southern.”
How do senior citizens add to the dynamic of the classroom? “Well, definitely a different perspective. And [the professor] felt that helped younger people who are reticent, but able to be more open, and that, in and of itself, was great” states Seltzer. This overarching idea that this advanced generation can offer some sort of unparalleled insight to a younger generation is singular in its experience.
Professors seem to enjoy their presence as well. “In every single instance. the person has added to the class, never detracted. They interact well with others, meet deadlines, feel grateful for the opportunity to be part of something that makes them feel young again and creative, and they, in turn, are usually very respectful of what they learn from students, who operate in a social media universe they know nothing about,” says Mary Collins, Associate Professor of Writing and English at Central Connecticut State University. “I think my nonfiction writing classes draw more senior adult learners than most because often, people want to write about something in their lives. I have had Vietnam veterans, retired teachers, retired doctors, people like Ellen.”
Of course, there’s always the prospect that not many schools are open to that type of influence. “I didn’t want to go to Central first. I went to my alma mater to see if I could audit it. Uh-uh. No,” says Seltzer, grateful of the opportunity she had been given. She clutches onto her bag as the sinewy metal rim of her glasses reflect the light above. Sitting on this bench after class had let out, she wondered what she would be doing had she not been at this class. How many other people sit in their living rooms, mindlessly flipping through channels?
Elderly or retired citizens “didn’t know [the opportunity] existed and [now] there are people actually thinking about it. Not everyone has as much free time as I do. Well, they have grandchildren, or they have other obligations. And even though I work and I clean my own house – those kinds of things – and I cook, I still have lots of free time. So, this takes up some of it in a useful, enjoyable, rewarding way. I mean, I learned a lot today about my paper when we critiqued it. I said I’d never look at [my paper] again. I will. “
This is revealed in the AARP study. “Those with at least some college are more likely than those with a high school education or less to say that such a formal setting is one of the best ways for them to learn (57% of those with some college and 60% of college graduates vs 49% of those with a high school education or less). This preference for more formal learning environments is not surprising given that those with at least a college degree are more familiar with and have spent time in this type of setting.”
No matter the age of the lifelong learner, people can always learn and find enjoyment in the process of learning. “My mother was a lifelong learner. She was one of the brightest, grown-up adults I knew. I cannot tell you that I will be – I am a lifelong learner, but it will be segregated. I will pick and choose that which I explore. Whereas my mother was open to everything. Everything. And fought for everything. So, I’m not quite as [open to] putting myself out there as she was, but yeah – this is wonderful for me.” The human desire to learn more, or to explore that which remains unknown, is innate.
This idea of the lifelong learner and the prospect of education for life, but not for a diploma, sets a wonderful precedent for younger generations. We are never too old to learn. Ellen’s successes demonstrate how learning does not need to be overwhelming, or learning for a test, but learning for enjoyment. Her excitement to absorb information embodies what every learner should aspire to be. With more people like Ellen, formal education and knowledge can prove to be one of the most rewarding experiences of the human education system.