Education Never Ends

The Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement

They say a Harvard education maylast a lifetime. With the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement (HILR) program, it can.

The 12-year-old institute gives elderly people interested in continuing their education after retirement an opportunity to learn and even teach in a variety of classes, as far ranging as Exploring the Kingdom of the Fungi, Welfare Politics in an Election Year, Religion Throughout the World and Legal Issues-Constitutional and Otherwise.

Started in 1977 as an offshoot of the Center for Lifelong Learning, the HILR has grown from an original 93 students to nearly 400 this semester. Although the largest, block of HILR students is made up of men and women formerly involved with education at some level, professions as varied as archaeology, dentistry, oceanography, and philosophy are represented in the program.

"Until the middle of this century we held to a traditional tripartite division of life into youth for schooling, middle age for marriage, family and work, and finally old age for retirement," said Dean of Continuing Education and University Extension Michael Shinagel at this year's convocation ceremonies for HILR. "That model is obsolete today as the United States is becoming transformed into a 'learning society.'"

"As people live longer and want to have active living and learning years, there aren't many people to look after them, and I think it's an interesting and a very decent thing for universities to do," Shinagel said in an interview last week.

Currently there are more than 200 learning in retirement programs at colleges around the country, and more are being planned. The programs offer classes ranging from lessons in bridge playing to college-level studies.

Student Teachers

No outside faculty are involved in teaching HILR classes. Courses are taught by the institute students themselves. Any student who is interested in leading a class can propose their idea to the HILR council, headed by the program director, Wayne Ishikawa.

In order to lead a class, prospective teacher-students fill out an application describing their proposed class and why they are qualified to teach the material. Some of the class leaders have special skills in the area they teach, others teach because they are interested in the topic, and they learn about the subject on their own before the HILR session begins.

"I started my class because the person who used to teach it got ill. People said to me, 'Why don't you teach the class? You like music.' So now I do," says Thelma Tyndall, who teaches a class called Music in our Lives. "Sometimes people ask me why I'm qualified to teach a class in music appreciation, and I just say, 'I like music and I like people. That makes me qualified.'"

"I don't really teach, anyway," Tyndall says. "It's a very relaxed sort of thing--just in-class with no big assignments. Some of the classes are very regimented with homework and papers, but I don't have time for that."

Robert Robinson, a retired lawyer who teaches a class on legal studies, prefers to run his class more traditionally. Students are expected to read the newspaper and clip out articles on legal issues and to do three hours of reading each week. Robinson says he likes to run his class in such a way because he enjoys the studying himself.

"I like school. My one regret, when I was practicing, was that I couldn't continue my own research," says Robinson, who spent the spring before he began teaching his class learning about Constitutional law.

Robinson heard about the HILR from one of his clients, who was involved with the program. "I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I wanted something different," says Robinson, recalling the last days of his 35-year law career. "I had lost my zest for living."

"This is the liveliest bunch of 70-year-olds that you'll ever see," he says, remembering one of the first classes he took at the HILR. "It was a class in Elizabethan Drama. We didn't just read the plays; we acted them out. You should have seen everybody up there, playing the roles. At first we were pretty inhibited, but we loosened up."

The structure of HILR courses is similar to undergraduate sections, usually including 10-25 students, and class discussion is very informal. Conversations often move outside the classroom to lunch or dinner.

"There's a hell of a lot of collegiality around here, and it's just getting better. You have people whose whole lives revolve around this," Robinson says.

Students are encouraged to take only two classes, but they are allowed to take an unlimited number, and many take several courses while teaching one of their own as well. As part of their $155 tuition each semester, students can also take one free class at the Extension School or the Center for Lifelong Learning, an option which about 25 percent of the students choose.

In addition, there is an afternoon speakers series each year in which two HILR members and one outside visitor give lectures on a variety of subjects to supplement class work.

Space Problems

Although more and more colleges are offering learning in retirement programs, and there are several in the Boston area, Ishikawa says that one of HILR's biggest problems is that it can only admit 400 people to its program.

When the institute moves its offices from the basement of Lehman Hall to 51 Brattle Street within the next two years, however, enrollment will increase to about 500 students each term, according to Ishikawa. The program will not be able to accept more students after that point, he says.

"There is always the problem that more students want to do it than we can accept," says Ishikawa. "We do want to provide a sense of community and when you get too large, it's hard to do that."

Tyndall, who has been with HILR since its beginnings, says she already notices a difference in the social life within the program since it has grown to nearly four times its original size.

"When we started, we saw people outside the classes a lot, but as it gets bigger, it is more difficult to maintain social ties," Tyndall says: "People come from all around this area--some from great distances. Now there are smaller groups within the group who see each other socially."

Expanding Services

As the number of elderly people increases, and interest in programs such as HILR grows, learning in retirement programs are looking for new ways to expand the services they offer.

A national exchange network for retirement programs is one of many expansions which HILR directors and administrators are hoping to make in the next several years.

Last summer representatives from 32 different colleges and universities around the country which sponsor programs for retirement-age people or which are planning to start them came to Cambridge to visit HILR.

"[This visit] was the first attempt to set up a national network of learning in retirement programs," Ishikawa says. "Eventually we would like to start some sort of an exchange between the programs."

In his convocation speech for HILR, Shinagel suggested that part of the "last frontier" of continuing education programs should be retirement communities built as parts of learning in retirement programs.

"This is very much a trend among retired people," says Shinagel, citing programs in Pennsylvania and Florida which have started learning in retirement communities. "It's a very natural thing."

Shinagel says members of HILR are looking into the possibilities of building a retirement community in Brookline, where real estate is less expensive and available in large blocks. A busing system would transport students from Brookline to Harvard for the HILR classes each day.

Living in such a community would not be the choice of everyone, however, and would not be a requirement for attending HILR classes.

"I'm not the least bit interested in living with a bunch of old people," says Edward Shanley, who teaches the Origins of Science. "The people who are married will typically be owning their own homes in easy commuting distance. You'll never get them to join a retirement community--not while they are married. They won't give up their homes--their mortgages are paid."

Shanley and other members of the group concede however that for their peers who' are not married--about 50 percent of the group--living in a retirement community connected with HILR so that they could continue taking classes would be important.

"I have sort of avoided communities," says Tyndall. "But individual commuting makes it difficult to take advantage of things in the evenings like Extension School classes and concerts. Maybe a retirement community would make that easier if a lot of people could come into the Square together."

Although the idea of establishing retirement housing has been discussed, Shingel says it is in preliminary stages. "From the point of saying "This is a good idea, let's do it,' which we have not yet done, to actually moving in is a minimum of five years," he says. "It's a very major undertaking. You have got to have at least 20 acres of land and 200 units to make it economically feasible."

While the idea of retirement housing is being researched, branch programs are being created within HILR to increase the sense of community among students in the program.

This fall, HILR is starting a buddy system, to ensure that program members who live alone are safe. Program members can volunteer to be a buddy and call a peer every day to be certain that he is not ill or lonely.

In addition, about eight members of the institute last spring volunteered to take classes in Health Resources with the American Association of Retired People (AARP), so they could advise other members on how to find good medical care.

However, Ishikawa stresses the fact that the central focus of the program is still the classroom time.

"When people hear the words learning in retirement, most tend to focus on the retirement aspect," says Ishikawa. "As there is a greater need for retirement programs, obviously there will be reason to consider people's retirement needs. But we really are concentrating on being a facility for learning."