Last month, I was happy to announce the launch of Benedictine University's Center for Lifelong Learning.
The center opened with an event attended by more than 150 potential participants from many walks of life and corners of the world. Their interests varied from international events to philosophy to trips just for the fun of it. It was a lively and energetic group that seemingly has great expectations for the center.
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As the evening ended, I began to feel a little bit of pressure, for I was to be the first instructor-teacher-"guide on the side" -- or whatever you want to call someone audacious enough to stand in front of this group and purport to lead. While I have harbored the idea of a Center for Lifelong Learning for as long as I have been at Benedictine, the reality of it actually happening was humbling.
In the matter of a single evening, the questions in my head moved from the idea of such a center to the nuts and bolts of what this journey may be like. As the first "session guide" (for lack of a better term), I wanted the first meetings to be exciting and to set a standard for those to follow.
In preparation for my first session, I settled on a topic regarding how one makes ethical decisions. This is good standard philosophy fare, and I felt at home with this topic. My next step was to become a teacher again. It has been many years since I have had the honor of standing in front of a class. Much has changed in education, and while I may know the theory behind the changes, I have never actually been hands-on in the contemporary classroom.
Beyond mastering the new tools available to teachers like the chalk-less SMART Board with Internet at the ready, I began to struggle with fundamental teaching strategies. There is a certain teacher-centered learning theory that applies to traditional college students. There is likewise a learner-centered theory for teaching those older than 25. What about a learning theory for those older than 55 -- the very group I was about to encounter? What are the learning styles for those I was about to encounter?
Furthermore, the center's courses have no tests or major assignments, the traditional methods of involving students. With no tests or grades, how would I keep the students engaged?
I chose to let the participants guide and lead me through our common learning experience. As the "session guide," I needed to be flexible and able to change with little or no notice.
While I admit my nervous anticipation, I sensed that the participants approached the first session with a fair amount of angst themselves. Some likely asked themselves questions such as, "Will I be able to understand what is happening in the class?" "Will I be interested?" "Will the class be dominated by 'know-it-alls?'" In a lot of ways, the first session was like a blind date, with all the uncertainties and insecurities usually involved.
The first session began quite uneventfully with about 50 participants. While all of us were nervous, the eagerness to get started far outweighed any uncertainties. At first, the interaction was slow to develop. But like a caldron of water moving toward the boiling point, the intensity developed. Questions and challenges to the positions I was offering began to develop. Those who were initially quiet and reserved began to find their voices.
The first session delved into the origin of ethical decision-making and various ethical systems and influences on our lives. This group, unlike traditional students, is able to bring a wealth of wisdom, age and experience to the discussion. This wisdom is an untapped resource that can be translated into the traditional classroom. Traditional students discuss various ethical possibilities and conundrums; those older than 55 have lived these experiences and conundrums.
As time was running out for our first session, I wanted to set the stage for the next. I presented a list of five questions, four of which were from edge.org, an online philosophers' site. The questions were: 1. What do you believe is true, even though you cannot prove it? 2. What have you changed your mind about? Why? 3. What questions have disappeared? 4. What questions are you asking yourself? And 5. Why?
This last question was one I added. I asked each participant to select a question and briefly answer it. I would return the next week with the answers to share with them.
The question that seemed to garner the most interest was "What do you believe is true, even though you cannot prove it?" "God" seemed to be the most frequent answer. This led to a discussion of whether God's existence can be proved and so became the subject for the next session.
At each session, the participation has become more widespread and energized. If this group continues together, future "session guides" will encounter well-practiced participants who want to go where the discussion leads. As I was finishing the third session, which looked at traditional proofs for God's existence, I was asked whether we might add a class to the session. I agreed. The consensus of the participants was that we should discuss the possibility of a personal immortality. Wow!
The learning that has taken place as a result of this first session of the Benedictine University Center for Lifelong Learning mostly has been mine. The participants have taught me much about their learning styles and the deep reservoir of knowledge each person harbors. To me, a primary function of the center will be to unlock this knowledge to share with the larger community. I think we shall find that together we shall be wiser.
Finally, whether one is (or was) a doctor, teacher, carpenter or stay-at-home person does not seem to make a difference. A person's religious persuasion, cultural background or race make no difference. All are on the same journey called life. We seem to be eager to share our experiences so that we might better understand those very experiences.
Finally, I do not want you to think that the center is always about these heavy questions -- it is not. The center will go where the participants want it to go. A rich venue of programs is being developed. The next session is titled "The American Civil War in the Words of a Union Soldier."
To learn more about the Center for Lifelong Learning, visit the Benedictine University website, ben.edu, or call program director Stephen Nunes at (630) 829-1372, or his assistant, Natalia Poniatowska, at (630) 829-1384.
• William J. Carroll is president of Benedictine University in Lisle. His column appears in Neighbor throughout the school year.