Where Curiosity and Intellect Never Retire ; Life Experience and Lifelong Dreams Meld in Liberal-Arts Programs for Senior Citizens

Article excerpt

Bob Palter is not what you'd call a typical college student. He wears a coat and tie, and can vividly recall the poignancy of Pearl Harbor, watching his uncles and cousins go off to war.

Mr. Palter is semiretired and earning a history degree at the University of Massachusetts. He's also studying at the Brandeis Adult Learning Institute (BALI), a new liberal-arts program for seniors.

Palter is part of a growing group of retired or semiretired and highly educated people trading golf bags for book bags. They are motivated by a love of ideas and a desire to remain as sharp and active as they were when they attended school the first time around. With careers and child-rearing behind them, this population - the fastest-growing in America - has the time and energy to let new or long-lost interests lead them, and to interact with peers who share similar goals.

"They're not interested in basket-weaving,... or just rocking on their front porch. They want a change of scenery and more stimulation," says Bernard Reisman, who recently retired from Brandeis University as a professor and is the founder of BALI.

About 300 colleges and universities have responded to the interests of older adults by offering semester-long programs with courses in literature, music, science, philosophy, religion, and history. And some 2.5 million people age 65 and older participate in a form of organized adult education, a number that's growing, according to Ronald Manheimer, director of the North Carolina Community Center for Creative Retirement.

Often curriculum is driven by students, and everyone is expected to actively participate. BALI and other local programs at Harvard, Boston College, and Tufts, aim to attract members who will become "peer mentors," students who take courses but also plan and lead them. The cost is low or even free because class leaders are volunteers. In BALI's nondegree program, the 275 students pay $250 for two 10-week classes, which meet weekly.

I always wanted to learn about ...

Palter was always interested in history and film, but he couldn't squeeze them in as an MIT engineering student. Now he finds time to read books like "Walter Lippmann and the American Century" by Ronald Steel, write papers, and research the Holocaust. He says he might teach high school history after graduating.

"There's a whole wealth of learning that I had never been exposed to,... everything from the Ottoman Empire to the internment of Japanese-Americans," he says.

Dr. Reisman launched BALI this year, and it has generated an overwhelmingly positive response. The program now has a waiting list for classes, which include "The rise and fall of fascism in Italy," "The writings of Henry James," and "Astronomy: An introduction to the solar system."

The availability of good peer mentors influences which classes are offered, Reisman says. Class leaders sometimes have little teaching experience, but bring a wealth of expertise. An Italian history teacher, for instance, lived in Italy under Mussolini's fascist regime. …