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 "That model is obsolete today as the United States is becoming transformed into a 'learning society.'"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."