Observe Saul Haffner standing at the front of a class full of students and it’s clear you’re watching a man in his element. His voice crackles with the delight of sharing what he’s learned with those eager acolytes who have come to partake of it. His eyes widen as he gazes at the faces before him, scanning each one for that telltale expression that all teachers yearn for — the look that says: “Oh, now I understand.”
For more than five decades the seventy-seven-year-old Westport resident taught business and economics, most recently at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, before retiring in 1997. Today, Haffner still teaches, but only for the fun of it — which works out well because his students come to his class for nothing more than the sheer joy of learning. They are all, teachers and pupils, members of the Lifetime Learners Institute (LLI) — a program designed by and for older people who want to further understand and experience the world around them. Open to anyone over the age of fifty, the institute’s only other requirement for admission is an insatiable appetite for knowledge.
“I guess you could say we’re all living proof of the adage, ‘you’re never too old to learn,’” says Haffner. “If we share any trait in common it’s that, for us, the gaining of knowledge is an adventure — like scaling a mountain or sailing around the world.”
Unlike the typical college student, Lifetime Learners may walk a little slower, wear bifocals and strain a little harder to hear from the back of the classroom, but they also bring with them a wealth of assets including wisdom, experience and unbridled enthusiasm. They come from all backgrounds: former doctors, plumbers, stockbrokers, bank tellers and everything in between. Most of them commute from lower Fairfield County towns, primarily Westport, New Canaan, Greenwich and Stamford. Classes are taught at Norwalk Community College.
Some have traveled far and wide during their lifetimes; others haven’t ventured too far beyond home. Some have a keen interest in a certain subject they want to learn more about; others are fascinated by anything and everything. And some, like Haffner, prefer sharing what they know as a “facilitator” (a word the institute prefers over “teacher”), while others are content to remain perpetual students.
And the subjects taught here are every bit as diverse as the pupils studying them. The veritable smorgasbord of classes includes “The Causes and Effects of World War I,” “Butterflies of North America,” “Acting Made Easy,”… the list goes on. And on. As do the lines of students signing up for these courses, many of whom enroll in three, four and five during a semester.
“In fact, we’re often oversubscribed,” says Charles Lamb, the seventy-nine-year-old president of LLI’s board of directors. “So people sometimes have to wait to get what they want.”
Lamb, a Westport resident, sums up the dual benefits of joining a program like LLI: “The learning is the biggest part of why we do it, but so is the camaraderie that comes from being around people who are as keen about discovering new things as you are.”
While the institute has been feeding the habit of older knowledge junkies since the early 1990s, the idea’s roots go back decades earlier. Recognizing that age poses no barrier to learning, the Manhattan-based New School for Social Research launched a program called the Institute for Learning in Retirement (ILR) way back in 1962. The growing popularity of the program earned national acclaim and drew the attention of the Elderhostel Institute Network, whose series of educational travel programs were designed for the gray-hair set eager to see more of the world.
With the organizational savvy of Elderhostel backing it, the ILR expanded nationwide, and in 1992 Lifetime Learners enrolled its first class of students. Nancy Gluck, seventy-seven, a retired office administrator from Norwalk, is proud to count herself among the pioneers of the LLI. Having taken courses since 1993, Nancy now enjoys teaching a bit, as well.
“I received my undergraduate degree in English from the University of Michigan back in 1953,” she says. “But I knew even then I wasn’t finished with learning. I’m one of those oddballs, I guess, that finds it thrilling to learn something new every day.”
Nancy’s odyssey of discovery continues — she’s currently enrolled in a course on Mahatma Ghandi. “Before that I had taken a course in the history of the social contract in which we read Hobbs, Locke and Rousseau,” she says. “The course on Ghandi shows how sometimes the contract has to be modified and looked at in a different way. It’s interesting to see how it all fits together.”
All of which inspired Nancy to read voraciously about India, and now she’s offering a course to others interested in sharing her newfound enthusiasm. “I’m a dabbler — that’s the way I approach the entire experience,” she says. “I find a subject I think I might like, then I just dive in head-first.”
Kathleen Bernadette has pretty much the same attitude. A retired sales and marketing executive from Darien, she’s indulged her interests in a wide variety of subjects and course titles — everything from “Understanding Opera” to “The History of China” — since discovering the institute several years ago.
“I’ve probably taken dozens of courses, and I’ll probably take dozens more,” notes Kathleen, fifty-nine. “I guess you could say I’m hooked.” One her favorites was called “Relatively Royal,” a breezy overview of British royalty in the Victorian era. As a result of her study, she traveled to England and would like to return again.
But aside from the exposure to new ideas and cultures, one of the things Kathleen says she likes most about Lifetime Learners is the lack of pressure. No grades are awarded, no tests administered.
“You reach an age in life where, frankly, you just don’t want to have to write any more term papers or essays,” says Kathleen, whose curriculum vitae boasts several formal college degrees in economics and management studies. “Some younger people might not understand this, but I actually have fun in class. And I have fun outside of class, talking to my classmates about what we’ve learned.”
In addition to the in-class benefits, LLI students are drawn to the experience by a less-tangible payoff: companionship. One of the most popular opportunities for getting together with peers is a program called “Brown Bag Lunch and Learn,” which might include listening to a string quartet in the college courtyard or a poetry reading by a local author. The institute also arranges weekend excursions: a walking tour of Manhattan’s literary landmarks, a trip to Mystic Village to learn about whaling or a fall-foliage tour through Vermont.
But of all the places to explore, says Charles Lamb, potentially the most fertile ground is between the ears. Learning something new, he notes, changes a person’s mental landscape, adding an interesting geographical feature that begs to be wandered through at one’s leisure.
A few years ago, he enrolled in a course on memoir writing and the result was a self-published work called Lives: A Soundwriters Anthology. In it, Lamb and six other Lifetime Learners shared their stories, first with themselves and then with the world. “I had never thought of myself as a writer, or even much of student,” admits Lamb. “Putting my story down on paper reminded me of connections in my life I had lost, memories I thought were gone forever.”
Self-discovery through education is something Saul Haffner is more than qualified to comment on. After he retired from teaching, a former colleague told him about Lifetime Learners and, knowing how much Haffner missed the classroom, suggested that he offer a course in economics.
“To be honest,” Haffner recalls, “I didn’t think a bunch of older people would be all that interested in the subject. So I thought about what else I could teach. It didn’t take me that long to figure it out.”
Having grown up in an Orthodox Jewish household, Haffner had a lifelong interest in the books of the Old Testament, leading him to teach a course on the book of Genesis as both a work of literature and as one of the world’s most influential texts. In the finest tradition of a liberal-arts education, the class — whose members come from a multitude of traditions — nevertheless debates the issues freely and respectfully. There’s very little “choosing up sides,” he says, dispelling the notion that to become older is to become set in your ways.
More than anything, Haffner marvels at the eagerness of his students, at their thirst for knowledge for its own sake, without having to receive a grade as a reward for their efforts. Most college kids, he notes, are almost exclusively worried about their GPA — so much so that the subtleties of what he’s trying to teach get lost on them.
“Older students aren’t afraid to ask what the younger ones might consider a silly question, because they have no fear of looking foolish,” says Haffner. “They’re old enough, and wise enough, to know that the only foolish questions are those that go unasked.”
For more information, contact Lifetime Learners at (203) 857-3330; or e-mail at