Amazing Americans, Always Trying to Learn

RICHARD REEVES

April 03, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles. -- "Amazing place. Amazing people!'' said a British friend after traveling across the United States for the first time.

''What's the most amazing thing?'' I asked.

''People going back to school,'' he said. ''Old people, too. The British would never consider doing something like that. Why does everybody do it here?''

''Self-improvement,'' I said. ''Trying to get a new job -- a better job. Meeting new people. Starting over again.''

Starting over is the American daydream. And it is amazing the number of people who do it, millions and millions. Continuing education, adult education -- those are American expressions; they don't do these things in other societies. School is for children in the rest of the world. Maybe that means Americans are childlike. I hope so.

The College Board says that 45 percent of the nation's undergraduate university students are older than 25. By the year 2000, those ''non-traditional students,'' as they are called by colleges, will be a majority of the undergraduate population.

Well, we all know that education is one of the things wasted on the young. There are few of us, I think, who would not jump at the chance to go back to school for a year or more, or just camp out in a library looking for answers -- now that we finally know the questions worth asking.

A man named Ray Jenkins is a hero of mine. In 1964, when he was a reporter in Alabama, he won a Neiman Fellowship, a paid trip to Harvard for a year to audit any classes you choose or just to do anything you want. Mr. Jenkins wanted to read. He walked into Widener Library the day he got to Cambridge and, basically, walked out a year later.

Back in Alabama, he became the editor of the Montgomery Advertiser and came to believe that he could not really do his job well without a better understanding of how the law worked.

In 1972, he enrolled in the University of Alabama Law School, attending classes at night and graduating in 1976. He didn't like the law much -- the immorality and materialism of it bothered him -- but he knew what he was dealing with as a journalist after that.

I envy that. And I admire the non-traditional types I see on campuses all over the country now -- 60 percent of them women, I'm told. Some of that has to do with my own age. I speak a good deal at colleges, and it's a pleasure not to have to try to explain the Korean War to kids.

Some of what I'm talking about is just the sheer enjoyment of learning or of reading Shakespeare or Jefferson or Mark Twain after you have a vague idea of what they were talking about -- it's called life. Some of it is affirmation of recent studies indicating that mental ability is not so much related to age as it is to the amount of mental stimulation a brain, new or old, gets on a regular basis. (Apparently you can teach an old dog new tricks.)

Most of it, though, is career-driven. That's fine, too -- and necessary in most modern disciplines. I was educated as an engineer in the 1960s, but I don't think there's much chance I could get back to it because there aren't many jobs around for men expert with slide rules and vacuum tubes.

So, Memphis State University has a program called MINI. As in ''Move Into a New Identity,'' which is about as American an ambition as there is. At Chatham College in Pittsburgh, there is a dormitory for older students, $375 a month -- and that includes 10 cafeteria meals a week. At the University of California at Santa Cruz -- that wonderful place where pine trees are considered an ethnic group -- there is subsidized housing for couples and even older families.

And in Baltimore, at the College of Notre Dame, there is a Renaissance Institute for non-traditional students. One of the teachers there, who just retired as editorial-page editor of The Evening Sun, told me: ''The students get no credit and I get no pay.''

''I love it,'' he said. That's Ray Jenkins.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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