Johns Hopkins Gazette: November 28, 1994

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
     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
     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
     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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