Head of the Class: The Joy and Benefits of Lifelong Learning

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute provides high quality, low cost courses

I didn’t appreciate college when I went through it the first time in my late teens. Eager to explore grown-up life and new adventures outside the classroom, I could barely sit through the ramblings that were going on inside. How I’ve changed! Today I’d sit through those classes in a heartbeat. I’m not alone. Having lived long enough to know how much we don’t know, many of us in middle age and beyond hunger for the adventure of learning, for the pure joy of stimulating our brains and making today’s world a little easier to understand.
Thanks to the Bernard Osher Foundation, we can.

For those ages 50 and over, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute—affiliated with 119 universities and colleges throughout the United States—provides high quality, low cost non-credit courses on a wide variety of topics for those who simply want to expand their horizons. No longer concerned about earning a degree, students need not worry about entrance exams, rusty arithmetic or old transcripts.

While adult education is a mainstay in many communities, “lifelong learning” is a term that suggests more in-depth subjects and greater engagement with fellow students.The University of Washington is the resource for Osher programs in the greater Puget Sound area, offering about 20 Osher courses every spring, winter, and fall to 1400 members. Initiated by a million-dollar endowment from Osher in 2011, the UW offers classes in multiple locations.

“Location is key,” says Natalie Lecher, the program’s director at the UW. “We want our classes to be convenient for as many people as possible.” Ranging from community and senior centers to art studios and retirement communities, classes are also held on the main UW campus and South Lake Union.

Retirement communities are popular venues. “Era Living, for example,” says Lecher, “has been a big supporter of our program. It has much to offer: a beautiful setting, lots of adults living there who are interested in what we offer, and well-equipped classrooms, plus accessibility, like free parking.”

“Lifelong learning is part of our core mission at Era Living,” says Jacob Almo, Vice President of Operations at Era Living. “We are pleased to host the high quality Osher Lifelong Learning courses. They give our residents opportunities for shared experiences, stimulating discussions, and lasting bonds with each other.”
The cost to take courses is exceptionally reasonable. Together with the original endowment from Osher, students pay $35 as an annual membership fee, plus $30 to $45 per course. Usually held in the morning or afternoon on weekdays, the courses are 3 to 5 weeks in length and given in two-hour segments. Class sizes range from 30 to 40. But in something like jewelry making, which is more hands on, Lecher says, there may be only 20.

“What participants say they love best about our classes,” says Lecher, “is learning along with other people—and having no homework!” The social stimulation is almost as important as the intellectual; friendships often develop.

The courses are wide-ranging and amazingly eclectic. There’s “Understanding Islam” scheduled for this spring in two locations—and it often sells out. A class called “Precursors to the Great Depression” provides background to our financial crisis of 2008 by looking at the development of American banking as far back as the 1800’s. Another looks at great women artists from 1500 to the present. A course on the American Revolution examines the important intellectual and political ideas that shaped the War and its impact on colonial society.

Bernard Silbernagel, PhD, is both a student and a teacher at Osher. Retired in 2007 as a research scientist with Exxon Mobil’s Corporate Research Laboratories in New Jersey, the class he teaches, “The Cosmos,” examines the fundamentals of deep space, which have fascinated human beings since the beginning of time. “As a teacher, I try to focus on the questions students would most like to know, such as the underlying culture of the people who explored the issues and their impact on today.”

Short courses for people 50 and over are a terrific idea, he says. “If you’re not an expert in something, being able to learn the highlights of a topic in 8 or so hours is just about right. As a student, I don’t take courses in science, but choose topics I don’t know much about, such as Islam and music, and some marvelous art courses.”

Also available to members are free “Lunch & Learns”—monthly noontime talks from experts on a wide range of subjects; special events, such as guided museum and garden tours and summer field trips; and free study groups led by Osher members.

For more information, go online to or call 206-685-6549.