Home Commentary The Way I See It: Back to School Isn’t Just For Kids

The Way I See It: Back to School Isn’t Just For Kids

I’m writing this around Labor Day, and part of me is, as usual for this time of year, wondering why I’m not at the drugstore buying new spiral-bound notebooks, pink erasers, and ballpoint pens. 

The rhythms of the school year, for me and perhaps for others, got hardwired in the first couple of decades of life and have never quite faded away. While more active, outdoorsy kids dreaded the onset of September and summer’s end, nerds like me couldn’t wait to get back to the classroom, immersed in learning new stuff.

Among the joys of being a grownup is getting to decide what stuff we want to keep learning — and not learning — about. Back in the mid-’90s, a friend told me about the Bread Loaf School of English, the less famous but perhaps more quietly influential summer master’s program of Middlebury College (most of its students are high school teachers). 

I enrolled as soon as I could, obtained leaves-of-absence from my job, and spent the next five summers on a mountaintop retreat in a state of literary bliss, geeking out on Shakespeare, post-Colonial fiction, and English modernist poets, while incidentally picking up a master’s degree. It was the most fun I’ve ever had, despite the stresses of long reading assignments and paper deadlines. I was beyond lucky to be able to do that. 

These days, there are a ton of possibilities for lifelong learners that could be just as much fun, without the stress of homework, grades, and four-figure tuitions. An example: Dartmouth’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) has a fall catalog with 82 course offerings, some in-person, some hybrid, and some Zoom-only, on such random topics as Liverpool’s role in the history of slavery; the geology of New Hampshire’s late, great Old Man of the Mountain; “How to go to Hell,” an exploration of different religions’ concepts of the afterlife; and an analysis of the Greatest of All Time sports champions. The annual membership for OLLI, open to all adults, is $80, with class fees, depending on length, running from $30 to $90.

The University of Vermont also has an Osher program, with a lower membership fee that gets you a 50% discount on course costs. Although the bulk of its programs are at UVM itself, it offers classes and courses in different regions of the state, including at the Montpelier Senior Activity Center (MSAC). Samples include Romantic to Postmodern Poetry, Brain and Memory Activation, and one-day programs such as Cryptocurrencies and the Future of Money.

And speaking of MSAC, a wealth of offerings are available to members and others (membership for anyone over age 50 is $25 yearly for Montpelier residents, $40 if you live in one of its satellite towns) ranging from pottery and painting to rock ’n’ roll, choral singing, and line dancing, to film studies with local expert Rick Winston. Membership gets you discounts on all classes, with some open only to members (see link below).

If you’re over 65 and yearn for an authentically academic experience, you can audit one class per semester for free (no grades, tests, or papers) through the Vermont State University system: Castleton and Northern Vermont universities, Vermont Technical College, and Community College of Vermont (CCV). CCV’s catalog alone has a wealth of course options from Accounting to Theater Arts. One such course, which I took back in 1996, was taught by the chair of Champlain College’s Theater Department and led to a rich “hobby career” for me in community theater. 

And then there are all the independent study options. About once a month, I get a colorful catalog from The Great Courses, with close to 1,000 wide-ranging offerings: how to cook a gourmet meal; how to observe wildlife; how to brand yourself (not literally, thankfully); and such arcana as “Lessons from the Black Death” and “The Real History of Dracula.” 

I’ve never paid full price for any of these; once you buy one course, you’re on a list whose monthly tabloids beg you to buy more online or CD-based classes for modest costs: $25 to $50, for instance, for a semester’s worth of learning. The faculty for these classes are real experts in their fields and many have won teaching awards. My current backlog (which I’ll make myself go through before buying any more) includes “How to Look at and Understand Great Art”; the “Great Tours: England, Scotland, and Wales”; and “How Jesus Became God.” 

And, of course, there’s always Bear Pond Books (thankfully reopened since the flood) or our invaluable Kellogg-Hubbard Library (whose book collection, if not its heating and ventilating systems, survived the July deluge), where you can pick up something to send you off on your own new hobby or down an intellectual rabbit hole. The important thing to remember is that it’s for fun now, and you don’t have to do any of it you don’t want to.