The Harvard Crimson

When the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement prepared to mount a production of “The Tempest” in the Cambridge Public Library Auditorium, institute student Helen E. Bakeman was unhappy with the role. minimal women in the room. She wanted to audition for a riotous character – someone new and exciting. So she tried out for the role of Caliban, the evil son of a witch.

“I thought, ‘No, I want to play a freak teenager,'” she says, adding, “And where else can a 70-year-old band get roles and play as teenagers?” Nowhere else.” During the audition, she impersonated Caliban by jumping and running on stage. In the end, she says, “I made a complete fool of myself and got the part.”

Reflecting on his theatrical endeavors, Bakeman remarks, “Caliban is tough and gruff. He gets drunk in the room. He recites poetry. He’s cheeky… It was the last Shakespeare play I think I’ll do, and it was the most fun I’ve had in years.

Like most HILR students, Bakeman began taking classes after retiring from a varied professional life in project management as well as social science research and consulting. A self-proclaimed workaholic, she didn’t want to marinate in her sudden aimless free time. She viewed retirement as a time of rejuvenation, not stagnation, and enthusiastically immersed herself in HILR’s intensive, exploratory learning model.

HILR’s student body is made up of retired professionals like Bakeman who seek to expand their minds together through a classic model of liberal arts education. The 550 students lead and attend the more than 120 peer-led classes and enrichment activities offered by the program.

Linda S. Sultan, for example, rediscovered the joys of reading literary classics thanks to HILR.

She shocked a young family member when she told them she had read all seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s novel ‘In Search of Lost Time’, infamous for being 4,215 pages long.

While Sultan was studying literature, Bakeman immersed himself in a course on the civil rights movement, then waded into more personal territory by taking classes on immigration. “My parents were Holocaust refugees, so I grew up thinking about immigration, so I stayed interested,” she says. In one class, students chose a group of immigrants to research and present to their peers. This final project then inspired her to read and research autobiographies written by former African-American slaves.

As another intellectual challenge, Bakeman is currently taking a course on Jacob Lawrence, a black artist who painted “The Migration Series,” which depicts the great migration of black Americans from the South to the North. Art history is an area that is unfamiliar to her and she wants to learn to appreciate art on a deeper level. “I go to a museum and I know what I like, but it’s very different to stand in front of a painting and say, ‘Okay, what do I see? say?” she said, adding, “I think when I go to museums, I’ll do things differently now.

In many ways, HILR is an exemplary model of traditional liberal education that values ​​the virtue of learning for personal growth and growth, rather than professional development. There are no exams or essays. HILR encourages students to teach their own courses. Students refer to these classes as study groups, and everyone contributes to the discussion. According to Bakeman, his peers “are not afraid in a class to say, ‘I don’t think I understood that part of the reading. Could we talk a bit about it, or could someone explain it to me? »

David F. Bliss, another student, appreciates the community aspect of the HILR teaching method. “We do not distinguish between those who are teachers and those who are learners. We are all learners in a sense,” he says. After a career as a scientist with a doctorate in materials science and engineering, HILR gave Bliss a chance to change subjects and study social science.

“It’s a part of my learning experience that I wasn’t really engaged in in my professional life, so it gave me the opportunity to engage in the global culture, the canon of literature that exists and that I hadn’t been able to read or didn’t have time to read when I was working, so it was really a wonderful and rewarding experience,” Bliss says.

Bliss had the good fortune to lead a course on evolution, blending the sciences and the humanities, focusing on how the theory affected both American writers and scientists. He also co-taught a course on Leonardo da Vinci – while his co-teacher, who was an artist, discussed the aesthetics of the paintings, Bliss analyzed the scientific and technical aspects of da Vinci’s notebooks.

Bakeman was also inspired to lead her own class. She lectured on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, an industrial disaster in New York that claimed the lives of 146 people, mostly women workers. After hearing about the disaster for the first time, Bakeman says she descended down a rabbit hole of research, examining historical forces at the time of the tragedy, including the women’s movement, the labor movement, the industrialization and immigration. Bakeman wanted to lead this course “as a way to bring together all of these strands of American history,” she says.

Sultan is always impressed by the enthusiasm and preparation of her classmates. Ten minutes before the start of each class, she says everyone has already arrived, ready to chat. “It’s much better than undergraduate. I think partly because we have time to do it, but, you know, it’s so much more interesting at this stage of life because we’ve traveled more,” she says. “We have lived longer.”

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