A love of lifelong learning

Of the organizations I’ve been involved with over the years, I can think of few that make more sense than the Shepherd’s Center. The idea is simple: Active seniors volunteer their skills to serve older seniors, and spend one day each week learning new things.

Shepherd’s Center volunteers tackle such simple but vital tasks as providing transportation to seniors needing rides to the doctor’s office or grocery store. They also help out with small home repairs.

And on Wednesdays, through a program called Adventures in Learning, volunteer teachers – mostly seniors – provide remarkably inexpensive courses in everything from Tai Chi to current events to quilting. There’s even an inexpensive lunch in the middle of the “school day,” providing time to socialize before plunging into the afternoon’s classes.

My involvement with the Shepherd’s Center began with an invitation to speak at a Wednesday lunch. I was impressed with the number in attendance, their obvious engagement in local affairs and the overall sense of being among seniors leading busy, interesting lives.

Soon thereafter, I was invited to consider teaching a course for Adventures in Learning. I suggested a Shakespeare class, but was warned that it would probably draw poorly. It took two years to persuade the Shepherd’s Center to let me try – and they finally agreed only because they were experimenting with a summer session, at which attendance was uncertain.

As things turned out, attendance was good. Many of my students went from Shakespeare-phobes to Shakespeare fans, venturing as far as Williamsburg and Staunton to see professional productions of his plays. When I suggested that my students take their grandchildren to plays, one even brought a grandson to class – a departure that the Shepherd’s Center welcomed.

I offered similar courses in the fall, winter and spring terms with equally gratifying results. So I was disappointed when the Shepherd’s Center decided not to offer a full term again this summer.

Fortunately, we eventually got together on a special one-day, three-hour class to keep my students informed about this summer’s Shakespeare offerings at Agecroft Hall and at William & Mary, as well as Sycamore Rouge’s free outdoor production at Battersea plantation. The class will be meeting next Wednesday, July 7, at Lucy Corr Village. Anyone interested can register through the Shepherd’s Center.

Now, I realize I’ve written before about teaching at the Shepherd’s Center. I enjoy the experience, but there’s more to it than that. The Shepherd’s Center, in my view, stands for the proposition that learning really can be a lifetime adventure. Indeed, it’s becoming increasingly clear that lifelong learning is absolutely vital to the health of our aging republic.

These days, many people – especially in business and politics – speak of lifelong learning in terms of updating the skills of the workforce. That’s a valid perspective, but not one that seems to me central to the mission of education.

After all, in a technological era, intelligent employees learn on the job, every day, and smart employers work hard to create workplaces that encourage both new learning and outright innovation by employees at all levels.

Needless to say, at times of economic dislocation, when large numbers of citizens are thrown out of work, retraining programs become a priority, with important roles for both government and the private sector in preparing adults for new careers.

That said, in a republic, education plays an even more fundamental role: Preparing citizens to carry out their civic duties in an informed and responsible way. In a traditional society, when change comes slowly, this is mainly a matter for the schools, but in a world of ever-accelerating change, every generation – even the oldest – needs constant access to new knowledge and new skills.

To choose one example: Consider the enormous and necessary debate now being waged over the role of fossil fuels in our society. The issues in this debate are addressed at every election, and in countless federal, state and local policy decisions between elections.

The duties of citizenship require at least a passing familiarity with the current state of knowledge in such diverse areas as global climate change (and the human contribution thereto); the geological and economic possibilities of “peak oil;” the human and environmental costs of various energy sources, from mining disasters to oil spills; the foreign policy and foreign exchange consequences of continued dependence on imported oil; and the potential contributions of new energy technologies and sources, not excluding conservation.

It is not sufficient to have an opinion on these subjects. Serious citizenship demands an informed opinion. And seniors need such information just as much as today’s generation of public school students.

Fortunately, seniors are the most eager learners anywhere. All they need is a place to learn, and teachers to teach. Institutions such as the Shepherd’s Center deserve all our support for the vital role they play in lifelong learning, whether the subject is shale oil or Shakespeare.

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