In praise of aimless learning

booksI dreaded retiring from work in 1992. I felt there would be no structure to my week. Fine for a holiday, but I worried about waking on a Monday morning every day of the year wondering, “what can I do this week?”

Being retired can be a burden. There is too often a feeling of being left behind and purposeless and, if you live alone, you can very easily start to feel isolated.

I did two things that turned out to be very important. I started going to short weekend courses at an adult education college, and I joined the University of the Third Age, U3A.

Despite all the talk about lifelong learning, adult education has gone out of fashion in recent years. The premises leased to my adult education college were closed by the council so they could be sold for housing. The older people for whom the college was so important have fought to keep it going, with rather fewer courses which we hold at a local hotel but it’s not the same as having a residential centre.

Of course, I’m not against education for productivity and global competitiveness, but learning has other aspects. They are perhaps harder to measure, but they are invaluable to individuals and, I would argue, helpful to society at large. There is some evidence that mental activity helps to postpone dementia. There is a lot of evidence that social activity helps people to age happily and more healthily. Learning, especially with other people, can help prevent depression and isolation and boost confidence and energy.

Fortunately, the U3A continues to thrive and there is an enormous range of subjects on offer. It took some initial courage to turn up, but I found that it was easy to join in a conversation that wasn’t about the personal circumstances of the people present but on a subject of general interest. Gradually you realise that the fellow members of your group have become friends.

I joined a fortnightly walking group, nothing too strenuous, plus a French class and a book group, where it was easy to discuss thoughts and ideas. I was surprised how quickly barriers broke down as you looked forward to hearing others’ views.

There are 760 U3As in the country, all self-help organizations supporting learning for pleasure. The aim is not to get qualifications, or achieve certain levels of learning. But in that relaxed approach lies their success and usefulness. The U3A has allowed me to feel part of the world again. Multiply my experience by the hundreds of thousands of people who are involved in U3As every week, and you have a lot less ill-health, decline and sadness.


A word about words

A photograph of the word 'Old' on a wall‘Older people’, the subject matter of this website, has a euphemistic ring. It sounds weaselly. Older than what, or whom? Babies? Toddlers? Teenagers? It’s a phrase that reminds me of the old Jonathan Miller joke: ‘In fact, I’m not really a Jew. Just Jew-ish.’ It prevaricates and quibbles and refuses to come out and say what it means, leaving open the option that it could be referring to a group who are older than, say, a class of 10 year-olds.

The relative term has grown in popularity because the absolute one – old – is so loaded with cultural baggage. ‘Old’ is used so often as a synonym for bad that we’ve stopped noticing. It conjures images of ‘tired’ or ‘finished’ or ‘obsolete.’ This is also true of its satellite words: think of ‘sunset industries’, or ‘ageing infrastructure’ or conversely, ‘young cities’. (I was tempted to write ‘vibrant young cities’ there, because that’s the near-automatic second adjective). Words that began simply as chronological designations, open to all sorts of evaluative layerings, have become rusted over with self-loathing notions of decline and decay.

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