On Campus

Lifelong learning: Going back to university can be fun

One in five U.S. adults take a course out of personal, not professional, interest each year

It was starting to get embarrassing: I’d been living in New York City for 20 years and had never been to the symphony.

I considered myself a well-educated person, read books and magazines, spent hours at art museums. But for some reason, live classical music intimidated me. Maybe it was the tuxedoes and evening gowns worn by the members of the New York Philharmonic, or those mysterious pauses between movements when everyone seemed to know not to applaud.

So last fall I audited a music appreciation course at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York – the first time I had been back to college since I graduated in 1976. I wanted to learn just enough about western classical music to enjoy an evening at the opera or a chamber music performance. I also wanted to finish what I’d started in my first semester of college when I signed up for – then dropped out of – an introductory music class.

About one in five American adults, or about 40 million people, take a course out of personal, not professional, interest each year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Classes in subjects ranging from computers to cooking are taught at colleges, community centres, libraries and other venues.

Whether the recession will diminish this flow of so-called “lifelong learners” to the classroom remains to be seen. But Sean Gallagher, a program director and senior analyst at Eduventures, a higher education research and consulting firm, expects demand to continue.

“You get a lot of value in taking a course,” he said. “If you take a course for $200 and it meets weekly for eight weeks, that’s a lot of value compared to some other activities.”

Some take classes just for fun, others to nurture undeveloped talents.

Kumar Shah, 60, has taken two writing classes at the 92nd Street Y in New York City since semi-retiring from a career in corporate finance, where his business reports earned him a reputation for a “pretty decent way with words.”

“It suggested I might have a talent and interest in the other direction,” he said, “and maybe a course like this could be fun. It gives me a chance to talk to and be with people who enjoy this activity. Many of my other friends don’t have the same level of interest in reading and writing.”

The 92nd Street Y offers more than 4,000 classes, some taught by leading scholars and writers such as Margaret Atwood.

In the subset of adults like me who go back to a college or university to take classes for personal enrichment – a group that numbers up to seven million – the average age is 51 and 70 per cent are women, Gallagher said. They tend to have higher-than-average incomes, and spend about $800 a year taking an average of 2 1/2 courses.

In my class, there was only one other oldster. Most of the three dozen students who filled the classroom that first evening in late August 2008 fit the profile of the traditional undergraduate. They were young – alarmingly young.

I had to marvel at them, hooked up to their iPods, toting laptops, glued to their cells: They seemed so much more sensible than I was at 18. They showed up, were polite to the teacher and appeared to turn in their homework on time. Even those with full-body tattoos and platinum-dyed hair seemed intent on getting a good grade.

Looking to redeem myself for taking the easy way out my own freshman year, I threw myself into the course work. I took copious notes, crammed for exams, played and replayed the listening assignments, and memorized obscure facts we weren’t expected to know.

I was lucky to have a great teacher, Nathan Bowen, a 30-year-old graduate student and composer who was very much into digital music. Even though his musical tastes were firmly rooted in the now, he treated the past 1,000 years of western music with nothing but filial respect.

He would say things such as: “Josquin Desprez” – the Renaissance composer – “was without a doubt a total rock star.” He compared the violin virtuoso Paganini to rock guitarist Eddie Van Halen. And he solemnly said of Franz Liszt, “He played piano like no one had ever heard.”

He conveyed the outsize genius, ambition and expressive gifts of the composers: their wild, sometimes reckless lives; their illnesses and untimely deaths; most of all, their prodigious achievements. As the weeks wore on, I began to feel as though these larger-than-life characters, especially the tortured souls of the Romantic era, were like my crazy uncles in the attic, hovering at the fringes of my nascent musical life.

Before long I was entering the lottery on the Metropolitan Opera website every Monday to win a chance to buy $25 seats for weekend performances.

I was watching YouTube videos besides the latest from Jon Stewart: I was the 800,480th person to listen to Pavarotti sing “La Dona e mobile” from “Rigoletto.”

Gradually, life got larger, and so did the city. It expanded beyond the little block where my husband and I live on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to encompass a number of venues where world-class music is performed almost every night: churches, museums, community centres and, of course, Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.

In mid-November, I did it: I bought tickets for the first time to hear the Philharmonic at Lincoln Center. As seen on PBS broadcasts, that arts complex on Manhattan’s West Side glitters in the night like a brilliant constellation, lending its glamour to the prosaic ebb and flow of traffic along Broadway. As my husband and I approached on a rainy night wearing slickers, backpacks and sneakers, it appeared anything but glamorous. Lincoln Center has been undergoing a major renovation, and with concrete barriers and hurricane fencing it looked more like a construction site than the home of the oldest and most famous orchestra in the country.

Inside, the brightly lit lobby of Avery Fisher Hall had the bustling, commercial air of an airport concourse, with restaurants, bars and kiosks selling musically themed knick-knacks. Near the snack bars, patrons were devouring sandwiches and swilling coffee, and packs of youngsters were racing past sedentary clumps of elders.

The orchestra was performing a program of Russian music and featured the violinist Gil Shaham. We had never heard of him. But we were soon to learn the meaning of the word “virtuoso.”

He was astonishing, extraordinary. When the last note had sounded, the audience leaped to its feet and started applauding wildly. Behind us, the noise was particularly intense. We turned around and there were five teenage boys dressed in jeans and rugby shirts cheering and shouting their heads off.

So much for my preconceptions about classical music as stuffy, elitist and inaccessible. The performers had set the hall on fire, just like the rock stars they were. As we spilled out into the evening darkness, it was still drizzling. But the lights of Broadway were more vivid, and the world was more alive.

Nearly a year later, the course material I memorized is fading, but the spark that was lit is still burning. I’m awash in course catalogues and plan to sign up for another music appreciation class this fall.

– The Canadian Press

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