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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

It's Not Too Late To Learn

Eight months ago, shortly after my 70th birthday, I began my quest to conquer calculus. I justified my interest in higher-level math by recalling what I missed in skipping fifth grade. I was able to keep up in all other subjects, but I never made the transition from whole numbers to fractions. Throughout the remainder of my schooling, I decided I was just not good in math, crossing off all careers that required training in it.

I became, instead, a teacher of high school English. After five years of that, having no interest in school administration or counseling, I accepted a position as an admissions officer at a local university. Thirty years later I retired, still lacking fifth grade arithmetic skills.

Unwilling to return to the classroom, I enrolled in the online Khan Academy, which enrolls about 10 million students worldwide, most of whom are decades younger than I. Currently, I’m struggling to graph quadratic equations, enjoying the freedom to learn at my own pace, without a teacher prodding me along. I also like Khan’s requirement for mastery of a concept before being permitted to move on to the next. That’s a far cry from the days I earned a grade of “C” in Algebra I and be happily passed on to earn another “C” in Algebra II, without mastering either level.

A few months after I began my math quest, my wife and I signed up for our first adult education class through California State University San Marcos. It was titled Unbridled Obsessions: The Uncommon Interests and Bizarre Tastes of the Victorian Age, a fascinating class conducted by a fascinating lecturer. It was offered by the University’s Osher Institute, a program designed for students 50 years of age or older. The 30 of us attentive senior students were enraptured by Dr. Jack Williams’ rendition of a quirky time in history with remarkable connections to our own.

We liked the class so much we enrolled in another Osher class last month, titled, Oil, Politics, and the Mideast, taught by an Iraqi-born American, Farouk Al-Nasser, formerly the Executive Director of Iraqi Operations for a San Diego Fortune 500 company. The title caught our interest, not only because of the current world turmoil, but because our son is currently an aid worker stationed in Beirut. Dr. Al Nasser’s presentation has been far more insightful than anything we’ve seen on TV.

Cal State San Marcos is one of 122 colleges and universities from Maine to Hawaii offering Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes designed for students age 50 and older. The founder, Bernard Osher, well known as “the quiet philanthropist,” created the Bernard Osher Foundation in 1977, seeking to improve quality of life through support for higher education and the arts. In 2008 the Foundation provided CSUSM with a $1 million endowment for its program, which now enrolls more than 500 students each year in 13 locations throughout North County.

I’m not sure why going back to school has become so important to me. Maybe it has something to do with my 93-year-old mother, who had to quit high school to help out on the family farm and is struggling today with dementia. It might also be the absence of assignments and grades. This time I go to class only to learn, not to be judged.

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