Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Brevy Cannon:
August 31, 2011 — Ever wish the University of Virginia offered inexpensive courses just for fun – without homework, tests or prerequisites? Just learning for learning's sake?
The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at U.Va. does just that, offering more than 60 short courses each spring and fall.
Tailored to seniors' lifestyles but open to anyone, OLLI classes meet during the day, once a week for three to six weeks, at off-Grounds sites with convenient parking, said Marcia Fleming, OLLI's program coordinator.
During two six-week sessions this fall, about 50 short courses are being offered in Charlottesville at sites including the Charlottesville Senior Center at 1180 Pepsi Place. OLLI recently expanded to the Shenandoah Valley, and now offers about a dozen additional courses in Staunton and Fishersville.
A flat $100 enrollment fee per semester entitles a student to take up to 12 units, which could include, for example, two six-meeting classes or four three-meeting classes. Beyond that, each additional course costs $25. U.Va. Alumni Association members receive a 20 percent discount.
This fall, OLLI offers courses on a huge range of topics from classical music, Shakespeare, military history, genealogy, the Bible, digital photography and college sports to more unusual offerings, including "Is High Speed Rail a Train to Nowhere?," "What Happens During Anesthesia" and "Critical Thinking for Fun and Profit."
"Marshal Ney's Escape from Firing Squad to America" is about Napoleon's right-hand man and chief tactician, who faked his death by firing squad after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo and escaped to North Carolina. The instructor is Ken Wallenborn, a retired School of Medicine faculty member whose great-grandfather learned swordsmanship, French and math from Ney in North Carolina.
"An OLLI course is unique because it is taught by someone who generally loves their subject and is motivated to convey this interest," said Pat Rusk, who has taken approximately 80 OLLI courses over the past 10 years. "I am always recommending OLLI to others, especially those who are new to the community. It is a terrific resource."
OLLI partners with the Carter G. Woodson Institute in the College of Arts & Sciences to offer courses on African-American and African Studies. This fall the partnership is offering "Arts, Religion and Popular Culture in South Africa," taught by three pre-doctoral fellows at the institute.
"The course catalog is constantly being refreshed with new courses," said another longtime OLLI student, Charles Van Winkle. "In general, I've found the courses to be quite variegated and intellectually stimulating."
Many OLLI teachers are retired teachers and former professors with illustrious careers and a true love of teaching and learning.
For instance, renowned Constitutional scholar Henry J. Abraham, a retired U.Va. professor of politics who has been teaching for 60 years, leads regular classes on the Supreme Court.
Brent Kitching, who recently retired after a 42-year career in high schools and community colleges, teaches this fall's class on "Mass Media and the American Psyche."
"I'm a lifetime learner," said Kitching, who entered teaching via coaching after his success as a basketball star at Duke University – he played in the NCAA finals in 1964 against UCLA – did not translate easily into NBA success. "I've been fortunate because teaching has been an extension of my growth process as a human being.
"I still believe that education is an extremely important part of us as human beings, outside of our ability to earn money."
OLLI evolved from the Jefferson Institute of Lifelong Learning, a U.Va. foundation created in 2001 and inspired by Thomas Jefferson's own deeply-held belief in – and practice of – education as a lifelong enterprise that invigorates the mind and enriches life, Fleming said.
Grants from the Bernard Osher Foundation in San Francisco led to its transition to OLLI, a national network of lifelong learning programs at about 115 colleges and universities in the U.S. This spring, OLLI at U.Va. served more than 1,350 people in Charlottesville and the Shenandoah Valley.
Fall Session A classes start between Sept. 6 and Oct. 7, and Session B classes begin between Oct. 24 and Nov. 28. Courses meet once a week for three to six weeks.
Classes generally range from 25 to 75 students; a handful of smaller discussion classes are limited to 12 or 15. As of Aug. 26, about 20 Charlottesville classes were already full, while about 30 others still had space.