In his recent guest commentary, Mark Dorman of McGraw-Hill Education celebrated the idea that we are all “lifelong learners.” No one can disagree with that or with his plea for higher education institutions to develop innovative courses for adults throughout their careers.
But his focus solely on lifelong learning as a way to attain a better job and a more competitive economy is too common and wrong.
He misses an important point: Lifelong learning encompasses far more than retooling a workforce for better jobs. I should know. I am a retired 68-year-old and am looking forward to taking a full load of non-credit courses at Osher@Mizzou Lifelong Learning Institute this upcoming winter semester.
I have taken courses at Osher for the past four years. About 600 other older adults are also regulars here in Columbia. Judging from appearances, I think we range in age from the early 50s to early 90s.
We are a community of learners, taking short courses on everything from James Joyce’s ”Ulysses” to physics, Shakespeare and beading.
Some of us meet regularly to practice our Spanish on each other; others swap information about travel locations or take part in a diversity book club. In one of our academic years, more than 100 courses are offered.
I seriously doubt that anything Osher students have learned will end up contributing significantly to their net worth or enriching the local economy. Although some Osher students still work, most are retired. Yet we are all lifelong learners, and I believe that what we learn is as important to us as a new set of job-related skills are for younger adult learners. Individually, we develop our human, not our economic, potential. And in doing this, we add to mid-Missouri’s social capital.
Columbia has a well-deserved reputation as an education community where ignorance isn’t honored and where prejudice isn’t a cultural value. Whether through formal or informal methods, Columbians rely on organized education as a foundation for community values and individual growth.
Education is about the change that takes place in the minds of learners and its effects on their lives. For older adults who take courses at Osher, lifelong education is a way to keep our minds and spirits growing, despite our aging bodies.
New knowledge and new neural connections can flush out deep channels of mental habits, opening up new ways of thinking and new possibilities. We come to understand the present and the past, while preparing for the future.
During my career years as I sat in a desk on Friday afternoons, waiting for the weekend, I would never have guessed I would have another chance to study Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” I could never have imagined that I would be shivering on a cold night, balancing my camera on a tripod, learning to photograph the Milky Way, or learning from an experienced birder about migratory birds at the Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area.
Money is a necessity, and education is usually a sure path to earning more of it. During the stages of life when earning more — or enough — money is a priority, educational institutions can, and should, as Dorman advocates, provide a range of options to adult students.
But don’t confuse that vocational education with lifelong learning. There’s a whole universe out there, and lifelong learning is the only way to explore it.
Jack Wax is the chair of the Osher@Mizzou advisory council.