Lifelong Learning Institute continues to grow

These aren’t classes filled with kids wearing “Creed” T-shirts and ball caps, heading back to the South 40 to eat at Ursa’s Café or playing Frisbee in Brookings Quadrangle.

These people are looking to increase the knowledge they gained 30, 40 or even 50 years ago.

These people are attending classes at the University’s Lifelong Learning Institute (LLI), a member of the Elderhostel Institute Network. LLI consists of a variety of courses, or study groups, based on cooperative learning and member involvement.

Henrietta Freedman, a former University trustee, started the group in 1995 with the help of several people.

“Jane Smith, Anne Hetlage and I pulled together names of about 25 people that we knew and thought could teach short courses or have some other involvement,” Freedman said. “And when we started, we started with two classes.”

Now, LLI features about 25 classes per semester and nearly 500 students.

“When we started, we wanted to have 500 students,” Freedman said. “The chancellor (Mark S. Wrighton), in one of his first meetings on campus, was amazed at the level of interest, and he gave us a big vote of confidence.

“He thought that if we could reach our goal of 500, then we’d be doing pretty well.”

The goal is virtually accomplished.

LLI now occupies three classrooms and a lounge at West Campus, but as the group grows in size, new space is always being sought.

“It’s what one of our students would call an embarrassment of riches,” said Rich Diemer, D.D.S., Ph.D., program director of LLI. “Growing that quickly is a nice problem to have. We’ve looked at it and figured that within two years, we will nearly have maxed out this space.”

It’s not just the students — who are required to be at least 55 years old — that make LLI somewhat unique on a university campus. It’s also the teachers. Being a cooperative learning environment, the classes are all facilitator-taught.

“We don’t have any professors at all,” Freedman said. “Everyone in our group knows something about something and can facilitate a course.”

And that leads to a variety of subjects that can be taught — and learned.

A quick look through the course listings for the fall semester (which starts Oct. 1) shows such offerings as diverse as “Reading The New Yorker” and “Significant Presidential Decisions.”

“We have a curriculum committee, and an awful lot of effort goes into identifying possible new facilitators,” Diemer said. “A lot of people have been with us since the beginning and the same classes have been presented over and over — Shakespeare is a perfect example.

“But the facilitators are the lifeblood of this program, and the program is only as strong as the quality of your courses. Once the courses get stale, people will quickly go elsewhere.”

Other courses include “An Introduction to Chinese and Japanese Art,” “The Journey of Aging: Stories and Essays” and “The String Theory of the Universe.”

“We are growing much faster than we originally thought we would,” Freedman said, “and we’ve spawned groups around town — others have patterned their programs after ours, and that’s completely fine with us. We have no intention of being the largest, but we are going to keep the quality up in keeping with the tradition of Washington University’s goal of quality education.

“We’re a little bigger than we thought we’d be, but we still say that as long as people want to learn, we’ll be there.”

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