Back to School At Age 60


There is an old expression that says: 'youth is wasted on the young.'

So too, is education.

When I was young, I spent most of my time in school trying to 'game the system.' How many classes could I cut and still pass? How many gut courses could I take and still fulfill my requirements? What was less demanding to meet my 'science requirement': Astronomy or Oceanography? With oceanography you could take a nap on the boats on Lake Onota. On the other hand, with astronomy you could go to sleep in the evenings on the roof of the science building. Tough choices. Many were the all-nighters I passed writing a 20 page term paper in a single sitting, or reading an entire semester's course list the night before an exam. College.

One of the most popular essays, perhaps not of college, but certainly of grade school was: "What I Did On My Summer Vacation." Well, here is what I did. I went back to school.

In this case, the school is the University of Oxford, in England. Or more precisely, Christ Church College at the University of Oxford. Christ Church College runs a summer session for adults only, and they have been doing it for the past 25 years. The sessions are only one week long, but they cram an enormous amount of material into that one week. The classes are small, held to only a dozen students and one outstanding instructor -- would you expect less from Oxford. The campus, I don't have to tell you, is breath-taking.

Oxford was founded by Cardinal Wolsey in 1525, which makes it just a bit older than any of the schools I ever attended. The place drips history. It has produced thirteen British Prime Ministers, but Americans will more instantly recognize its dining hall as Hogwart's massive dining hall. That's America for you. And the place is filled with tourists lining up to take a photo.

My interest here was a bit more esoteric (although the daily meals in the 'Harry Potter Dining Room', which also happens to be dominated by a massive portrait of Henry VIII (star of Wolf Hall, among other TV shows)) was interesting), was in the study of German History -- Bismarck to Hitler.

Every morning, I and my 11 other classmates, following breakfast, made our way up to one of the ancient classrooms on the self-contained campus for a day or immersive history lecture and discussion. Unlike my earliers self of the late 1970s, I had absolutely no desire to 'dodge' any of my classes, nor to sleep late, nor to blag my way through the course. On the contrary, I relished every minute of it.

You may want to spend your time away from work laying on a beach or sitting on a cruise ship or perhaps even cycling across France, which is fine. But there is something unique about spending a week really stretching your brain. It's an organ that gets far too little exercise -- at least along these lines.

And the intellectual stimulation does not end with the classes, though that is quite a lot already. My fellow classmates, (unlike the callow 18 year olds I passed my first year at college with), were as interesting and educational as the instructors. They ran the spectrum from an ophthalmic surgeon to a lawyer to a computer design executive from Intel and many more. And it's an international group as well. I probably learned as much over meals as I did in the class.

The University offers a wide spectrum of courses, from history to cosmology to literature to music, and many more. Each of them but one week, albeit an intensive week, long. The teaching faculty, drawn from Oxford, are incredibly knowledgeable in their fields, but also extremely good and engaging teachers.

"If only we had teachers like this when I went to school," I and my classmates opine at the conclusion of each lecture.

The thing is, we probably did. We were just too dumb to appreciate it at the time. Age doesn't have many advantages, but this, at least, is one of them.