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Lifelong Learning: Post-Retirement, I Discovered the Joy of Taking Classes at Cal

August 21, 2015
by George Raine
Photo of Berkeley campus

There were a few days when I forgot my hearing aids, and senior citizens are the first to wither in classrooms built when Berkeley summer temperatures were pleasant, but I didn’t miss a day of the three Cal courses I have audited in as many years. Who wants to give up on learning?

It’s a benefit only possible with the consent of the instructor, and if space is available. Make no mistake, it is work, meaning intellectually rigorous, at the world’s best public university.

But it is also a stimulating exercise in lifelong learning, which slips away from many people in retirement, myself included. And the cost to me, other than books, was nothing.

UC Berkeley’s auditing policy ensures that Cal students who need a class to matriculate receive priority. But beyond that, registered students and interested individuals may audit classes with the consent of the instructor, who then sets the rules of engagement. Traditionally, those auditing often don’t participate in discussions, exams, or written papers, nor are audited classes recorded on the student’s class schedule or academic transcripts.

To find the classes that captured my interest, I consulted the Berkeley class schedule, and then emailed the professors asking their permission to audit. On the first day of class, I simply showed up, introduced myself and confirmed that there was room in the class.

I had the good fortune of auditing English classes in the summer sessions of 2014 and 2015 from Mitchell Breitwieser, an elegant lecturer who has taught at Cal for 36 years: the American novel and the language and literature of films, which this year focused on westerns. In 2013, I audited a history class, from reconstruction of the South to the eve of World War II, taught by Gabriel Milner, a bright-as-they-come 31-year-old at the time who had received his Ph.D. in history at Berkeley in May of that year and is now teaching at the University of San Francisco.

“With you being there, the students, who are so mired in ‘what is my work going to be’ and ‘what is my grade going to be,’ are reminded in a really salutary way of intellectual pleasure, particularly in discussion groups. But they are really also instructed by how the world looks different to older people.”

True, I did not write papers or take exams, but both professors wanted me to participate in the discussions, which I eagerly did. They saw a value in that.

Said Professor Breitwieser, “You are just there to think and learn. But with you being there, the students, who are so mired in ‘what is my work going to be’ and ‘what is my grade going to be,’ are reminded in a really salutary way of intellectual pleasure, particularly in discussion groups. But they are really also instructed by how the world looks different to older people. That’s not something you can do in chemistry or something like that, but with literature both ages can respond with characteristically different perspectives where each can learn.”

At 62, he’s not going to be retiring any time soon, but when he does, he said, “I think I’m going to take a class in learning how to sing. I’m also interested in learning how to draw. These are things I kind of lost track of at an early age.”

Having any non-traditional fellow students around them helps young people “get out of the trap, the frame of mind of school as a series of races to graduate and get a job,” said Professor Milner, “and to a place that I think is more personally meaningful and resonates. It also adds to their experience, to see someone else’s perspectives tied to life experiences.”

Professor Breitwieser is the Daniel E. Koshland Jr. Chair in Writing, named for an eminent Cal biochemist who headed the reorganization of biology at UC-Berkeley and who for 10 years edited the journal Science. In the American novel class we took deep dives along with him into “The Scarlet Letter,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and “Housekeeping.” One of the gifts of the class was learning the significance of scenes I must have read right over back in the day.

For example, in chapter six of “Gatsby” I had never fully understood what Fitzgerald was telling us in the scene in which Gatsby of new money West Egg takes a visitor from old money East Egg literally when she says he should come over for supper. He doesn’t understand – as Professor Breitwieser notes – how sophisticated people say things they don’t mean. After all, Gatsby is really James Gatz of rural North Dakota.

“In a sense he is moving across class lines, in an almost anthropological experience,” he said, “and if you take those discourses literally you are not going to get it, because you are an outsider to those discourses. Gatsby did not grow up amongst those codes.” Nick Carraway, the narrator, recognized the insincerity. “He is several generations into being genteel. He knows the codes,” said Professor Breitwieser.

In the Western film class, we followed a sequence from “The Westerner” of 1940 to “Unforgiven” of 1992, reading the screenplays and scholarly essays and viewing the works – twice. Professor Breitwieser thought it would be “congenial for summer school,” but he had to make it challenging. As the weeks went by, he believed, “the students become more and more proficient in the genre.”

One day in Professor Milner’s history class, he asked the students if they knew who Jim Crow was. Few of the recent high school graduates raised their hands. Professor Milner wasn’t surprised. “It does not skew to the normal story of progress, of moving forward. It violated the fundamental tenant of what we think of as progress. There is a Civil War to end slavery and then immediately after that basically slavery was imposed on the people.”

As Professor Milner walked his class through Jim Crow history, the students perked up. They found linkage between laws of segregation and discrimination then to what is still an imperfect union today. I could see the lesson sinking in. It was as good for me as it was for them.

One in a series of personal Perspectives. We invite writers and readers to submit their own essays—inspiration can come from California magazine or California Magazine Online stories, the news, or issues of the day. Read more:

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