Seniors back in school

Students: Over-50s go to a new kind of class for the sheer joy of learning

Life After 50

April 09, 2000|By Isaac Rehert | Isaac Rehert,Special to the Sun

Here is an educational institution ... -- Where the students never graduate and never receive diplomas or degrees.

-- Where students and instructors often trade places in the course of a day: The student of the morning session transforms in the afternoon into the teacher.

-- Where even the professional directors, when they retire, step around to the opposite side of the desk to join the ranks of the student body.

It's called the Renaissance Institute. It's part of the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore, and open to men and women 50 or older.

With 300 mostly gray-haired seniors milling about in the halls and in and out of classrooms, it may seem like a senior center. But I'm a member there, so I know it's not. Nearly all the classes are in the liberal arts. There are courses on World War I, James Joyce's "Ulysses," the sociology of religion, nutrition and more.

In many ways, the institute resembles a college for seniors. There is the similarity in course offerings. There's the location -- on a college campus where youngsters who could be members' grandchildren saunter by in blue jeans carrying stacks of books. The Renaissance takes spring break and summer vacation as the college does.

The instructors may or may not have degrees; they volunteer to teach their courses because of their passion for the subjects. There are no term papers and no exams.

Students don't simply sign up for a given course. They join the Renaissance, which sees itself as a community. (Membership costs $285 annually.) Members may take whatever courses they can fit into a day.

Instructors aren't even called teachers: They are "facilitators" or "coordinators." They needn't even be experts in their subject. The concept here is "peer learning," which means that members of a class are teaching one another. In a classroom of 20 or 25 seniors, there is usually enough knowledge and experience to answer any question that arises -- or to know where to find the answer.

There is a democratically elected council that decides what to teach and when, and how many to admit, and a paid professional director who, besides handling the administrative work, serves as adviser to the council.

There have been only two directors since the Renaissance began in 1989. The present one is Norma R. Long, who came in 1994 after a long career at several local colleges as a director and dean of continuing studies, which usually means programs for older students. She will retire this spring.

The previous director was Mary Lu McNeal, who was instrumental in the creation of the Renaissance and before that had been a teacher of history at the College of Notre Dame. She is now a member of the Renaissance, taking courses like everyone else. (The institute has not yet named its next director.)

McNeal said the Renaissance was the brainchild of Sister Kathleen Feeley, then president of the college.

"With the increase in the population of seniors, Sister Kathleen saw the need for a different kind of program for older people. So many are still active, interested, looking for challenges," says McNeal, 71. "A program should be intellectually stimulating and not just entertainment. And not just busy work to fill time. It should provoke people to think thoughts they've never thought before, to make them keep growing in spite of their advancing age."

Some institutions around the country -- including Harvard, Stanford and Northwestern universities -- had already pioneered similar programs, she says. Sister Kathleen appointed her to head a committee to consider the best type of local program.

"One thing everybody agreed on: It should be totally democratic, run by and for the members. And we should encourage as much diversity as possible. We wanted to stay away from grades, examinations and roll-keeping. We wanted people to come not because they felt obligated or because they needed a certain degree but just because they wanted to be here," says McNeal.

McNeal continued as director until 1994, when she retired. Since that time she has taken such courses as ethics and literature, the society of South Africa and drawing.

Before coming to the Renaissance in 1994, Long had been dean of the School of Continuing Studies at Towson University.

What's unusual about Renaissance, she says, is that it's a small community -- which makes it conducive to exploring and opening the mind.

"It's valuable that we're located on a college campus. There's ... value in walking across campus to your next class, rather than being out in the ordinary world. You feel part of a learning community, and that's very special," says Long, 61.

"I've always had a huge yearning for the liberal arts -- for the formation of the whole person. I guess that comes from growing up in grimmer times when the only professions open to a woman were nursing and teaching. In my generation, unless your parents were rich, the liberal arts were not open to us.

"Later, the community colleges started, and they did a fine job for traditional-age students, but I always thought that older adults were getting short shrift. There's where the Renaissance came in."

Curriculum is not the only benefit, she says.

"Courses are important, but so is the opportunity ... to come together in a learning community. And outside of classes, people go traveling together. And we have additional lecturers from time to time."

Of the coming change in her life, Long says, "I dislike the word 'retirement.' We need a more promising word to describe this new chapter in our lives. ... I've learned that the next phase can be good and wonderful. I feel that I'm starting the best part of my life. I'm looking forward to walking around from this side of the desk to the other."

Want to know more?

For additional information on the Renaissance Institute, call 410-532-5351.

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