Members of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Northwestern University visit the Art Institute of Chicago.

Members of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Northwestern University visit the Art Institute of Chicago.

Always wish you had studied architecture? Wonder if you would be better at science if you learned what interested you rather than what was required? Do you wish you better understood today's political issues more clearly or wish you could find others passionate about the same topics? 

If you consider yourself curious and have a thirst for knowledge, it may be time to check out what courses are available for adult learners.

While colleges and universities welcome older adults into degree programs there are other ways to continue learning and stay sharp — adult enrichment education.

"Unlike adult education where the goal is to upgrade skills, get promoted, change careers, lifelong learning goals are existential," says Judy Mann, director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies. "Lifelong learners are people who embrace our information rich society, keep their senses active and their minds full of ideas."


Why keep learning? 

If you are thinking that you've done your time in school, there are benefits to being a lifelong learner without the pressures of grades and tests.

Lifelong learning keeps people actively and meaningfully engaged with life, something studies show is key to successful aging, Mann says.

Kaye Buchman, associate director of Adult Continuing Education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), says in her 20 years in adult education it's impossible to account for all the benefits and rewards.

"I have seen firsthand how students who started out with what they describe as no creative ability or the drawing skills of a third grader become not only competent technical artists, but artists who have dedicated themselves to finding and achieving their own unique creative vision and purpose," she says.

Nancy Candice, 62, of Chicago, decided a year ago to return to her interest in art.

"Attending adult continuing education courses at my age is enlightening in the sense that the completion of a course is the beginning of self-discovery that resulted from being encouraged to try making art with new media that I had previously hesitated to try out of timidity," she says.

Judy Widen, 75, of Chicago attended an OLLI course after retiring and has continued  and led groups.

"(I've gained) a lot of knowledge and understanding, a mind that is sharper than at any other time of my life, a curiosity about new things and new endeavors (publishing a creative piece of writing), the self confidence to speak up about things I care about, and — best of all — a whole new group of really good friends," Widen says.

Stuart Applebaum, 76, of Glencoe, has attended and led groups at OLLI for 15 years and says there is much to be gained.

"I never really had the time to delve into areas of interest such as history and classical literature," he says. "Once retired and becoming an OLLI member I was able to pursue many interesting subjects and, most importantly, take part in discussions about those subjects with a group of very astute people. One can appreciate reading a classic like 'Anna Karenina' on one's own but that cannot compare with reading and discussing it over a period of weeks with others," he says.


What is adult enrichment?

Programs vary from school to school, but Northwestern's OLLI is one of 115 supported by the Bernard Osher Foundation. Each OLLI program is unique and Northwestern's program is peer-led.

"OLLI is a learning community, where participants embrace learning for the pure joy of it. Our motto is 'Curiosity Never Retires.' This non-credit daytime program has no exams, no grades," Mann says.