By Charles Bowen
I’M NOT the student I was 50 years ago. I am so much better now.
Oh, in defense of the late ’60s version of me, I had a lot on my plate. I was 18 and in college and in love. There were guitars to play and poems to write, beers to drink and wars to end. It was hard to focus on history class when history seemed to be happening all around us. And besides, wasn’t history also becoming irrelevant? After all, the world seemed bent on blowing itself up by next Tuesday. As Bob Dylan would later write about those grim, exhilarating days, “There was music in the cafés at night and revolution in the air.”
So I graduated in 1970, leaving campus with an excellent list of books I planned to actually read someday. Well, someday finally came. I have read all those books now and many more, urged on with a little help from my friends—friends like Ms Rose.
For my wife, Pamela, and me, our sherpa on this adventure into renewed education has been Rose Marie Riter. A dynamo of a woman, Rose has always lived what she preaches: Never stop learning. A retired West Virginia school teacher, she was active years ago in campaigning for the life-long learning state law (18B-10-7a in the state code) that enables any West Virginian over age 65 to audit any class in a state university for just $50 per course. Curiously, Rose successfully pushed for this legislation long before she herself could take advantage of it. Then when she hit retirement age, she was knocking at the door of her nearest university. Now Pamela and I regularly sit in those same classes each semester at Marshall University here in our hometown of Huntington, WV.
We have also learned from Rose that the learning doesn’t start and stop at the classroom door. Over the years, we’ve frequently accompanied her to hear about all manner of topics at lectures and panel discussions, seminars and symposia, one of the many perks, she reminds us, of living in a college town.
Beyond that, it was also Rose who introduced us to the extraordinary Road Scholar system (www.roadscholar.org), a 40-year-old not-for-profit education travel program (formerly called Elderhostel) that offers more than 6,500 educational tours for older adults in all 50 states and 150 countries. The Bowens are just starting out (we have been on only half a dozen Road Scholar trips so far), but Rose is a road warrior when it comes to Road Scholar, having been on more than 40 trips, all around the world.
But of course, dear Rose also has caused us to be a little annoying to some of our other friends. Yes, despite our enthusiasm for the concept, we’ve found life-long learning sometimes to be a hard sell. Oh, many of our peers like the thought of continued education. However, some are turned off by the idea of sitting in college classrooms with 20-somethings; others blanch at the thought of traveling and studying with a bunch of strangers, even people of the advanced same age. And don’t even bring up the notion of leaving cozy digs on a winter’s night to hear some visiting professor yammer on about climate change or the Russian Revolution or what archaeology has dug up lately.
Fortunately, though, nowadays you don’t have to leave home to learn. For years now, the Internet has had great educational resources, and—news flash—it has just gotten even better in the past year.
Several years ago on a Road Scholar trip, Pamela and I first heard about The Great Courses (www.thegreatcourses.com), a series of college-level audio and video courses produced by The Teaching Company of Chantilly, Virginia. The company was started more than 25 years ago by Thomas M. Rollins, former chief counsel of the US Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. These days, more than 600 courses are offered, ranging in length from six to 90 lectures on a broad spectrum of subjects.
But a turn-off factor is that the courses can be a little pricey. If you don’t catch one of the company’s frequent sales, you can spend several hundred dollars for a single course.
However, recently The Teaching Company launched a service called “The Great Courses Plus” (thegreatcoursesplus.com) that gives you all-you-can-stream access to more than 6,000 lectures for a flat monthly fee of $14.99. You can watch them on your TV or computer, your tablet or smartphone. Think Netflix for the brain. And you can try it for a month for free before deciding whether you want to continue.
Of course, now you have another problem. With 6,000 lectures to choose from, where do you start? Just follow your heart or at least your curiosity. Visit the site and browse the categories. History (oo oo! “Egyptian Hieroglyphs.” “Great Military Blunders.” “The Mysterious Etruscans.”). Science (“Exoplanets.” “Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Inexplicable Universe.” “The Science of Extreme Weather.”). Literature and Language. (“Heroes and Legends.” “How Great Science Fiction Works.”). Health and Fitness. Music and Fine Arts. Mathematics. Economics and Finance. Food and Wine. Travel. It’s like a candy store for information junkies. They even let you check out the company’s newest releases as part of the flat monthly fee.
What an interesting trail we’re on. Thank you, Ms Rose. Because of you, we can’t remember the last time we were bored.