The Way I See It By Steve Libowitz, Editor of the Gazette You can see them in the evening twilight trolling the parking lots as the campuses begin to empty from the day. They seem to be like salmon, moving against the tide of those students and faculty and staff heading home for the night. Their steps seem purposeful, a briefcase more likely to be in hand than a backpack. They commute from all across the region to Homewood and Montgomery County and Columbia and downtown Baltimore and Washington. There's no time for clubs or social activities. There's barely enough time to grab a bite to eat and get to class. Such is the lifestyle of the adult student. Adult education has become big business, at Hopkins and nationally. And the trend of the working adult returning to the classroom is likely to increase in the coming years. At Hopkins, 46 percent of all students are in part-time programs (61 percent at Homewood); in the School of Continuing Studies, 80 percent of the students work full time, most are in their mid-30s. For most of these students, the classroom is a place of intellectual uncertainty and possibility. I remember. I dropped out of college at 20, convinced that academia had nothing to offer me. After all, I was planning on becoming Steven Spielberg, going to Hollywood, making my fame and fortune as a film director. Not only did Spielberg himself actually beat me to becoming him, but I learned a hard lesson along the way: it's not so easy making a creative life when you don't have much to stimulate your mind. I had gotten trapped in that post-60s mindset that education was about authority, restrictions, limitations and narrow- mindedness, all problems I could best rise above in the real world. But I was wrong. College is about ideas: learning others', developing your own. After spending 12 years in that real world, I was able to admit my error. I responded to the hunger that had been welling up inside me for several years: the desire for knowledge. There also was the realization that in an increasingly competitive world, if I didn't have at least an undergraduate degree, I would eventually be passed over for employment by children I had babysat for when I was a teenager. So, I went back to school as an adult. And it was among the best decisions of my life. It wasn't until my second semester that I stopped worrying about work-world issues such as efficiency and appearances and getting the job done and started caring about questioning and venturing ideas and risking failure on new thoughts. I finally became a student, at 32. And at 40, I became a teacher, both of undergraduates and adult learners. The view from the front of the classroom has been illuminating. In the part-time Arts and Sciences graduate program, I am teaching a small class of men and women who hunger to be writers. The irony is that most of them are already writers, well established in journalism or education or the corporate world. But they have dreams of seeing their names sideways on the spine of a book in Borders or at the public library. They want to become authors. And they have been willing to spend a significant amount of money to follow that dream. They write when their families go to bed at night, or during small chunks of time borrowed from their employer, or on weekends. They write short stories and essays and poetry and novels. They come to class to discover themselves and to motivate each other. In the film course I teach in the School of Continuing Studies' non-credit Odyssey program, a faithful coterie of intellectually stimulated adults, most of them near or past retirement, explores one or another aspect of film, pulling a piece apart, learning how it works. Most nights we linger in discussion well past our three-hour class time. Usually the conversation spills out onto campus, out into the parking lot. I learn as much from them as I hope they learn from me. These men and women take these classes for the sheer pleasure of learning. Some, however, have more practical reasons, such as the couple who enrolled to better understand what their daughter's life's work is all about. She is a professor whose highly regarded books on Italian cinema are too theoretical for her parents. So they come to class, watch the films, talk them over with their classmates, and then go home and call their daughter to discuss their mutual interests. I wonder if my undergraduates, at another university, would take a class to better understand what their mother or father did for a living. They just tend to see class as I once had: something to be endured. This is what makes adult students so special, so worthy of having the academic red carpet rolled out for them. They care about learning. They know why they are in class. For some it might have taken them a long time to figure out what they wanted to know, why they wanted to learn and why they might want a degree. Some students want to remain professionally competitive. Others just want to learn how to think in a different way, like my friend, who is taking a math course just so he becomes more agile at thinking logically, analytically; just to explore a new way of seeing his world. That approach to knowledge is what I would hope drives every student, no matter the age. But too often, timing and personal conditions do not allow students to pursue their education along with their peers in the mainstream. Part-time classes, for credit or for fun, give these adults a second chance at learning. And for a teacher, that's often the chance of a lifetime.
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