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College in Retirement

Howard Rohleder

I RECENTLY COMPLETED a course called England: From the Fall of Rome to the Norman Conquest. Before that was Books That Matter: The Federalist Papers. Okay, I’m a nerd, I’ll admit it.

Since I retired, I’ve looked for avenues to broaden and deepen my understanding of subjects that I was taught in high school and at the liberal arts college I attended. Back then, there were college courses, like accounting, that I felt I had to take to earn a living. Still, some of my favorite courses were American history, Shakespeare, philosophy and poetry. If I could go back, I might take more of these latter topics—and less accounting.

But wait, I can go back.

For years, retirees interested in learning needed to find a way to take a class at a local college or build their own curriculum with books they borrowed from the library or bought. Later, books on tape and CDs offered a way to bring courses to your dashboard or den.

Now, quality courses can be streamed. While some educational resources are available on a subscription basis, many courses are available free or at a low cost. And those accounting courses taught me that free is good.

My go-to source for serious college content is The Great Courses offered by The Teaching Company. I’ve worked my way through dozens of its courses. The company offers a wide variety of subjects. Some I have no interest in, but many others are on my wish list. The marketing material brags that the company seeks out professors known for their teaching ability. No disagreement here. I’ve yet to come across a dud.

The courses I’ve taken range in length from six to 36 lectures, each 30 minutes long. The longest I’ve seen in the catalog is a 48-lecture course on western civilization. My favorites often derive from the quality of the instructor as much as the course subject. These have included:

  • How to Read and Understand Shakespeare: 24 lectures by Prof. Marc Conner of Skidmore College. I wish I had access to this when I took my college Shakespeare class.
  • Myths, Lies and Half-Truths of Language Usage: 24 lectures by Prof. John McWhorter of Columbia University. This changed my view of how to think about “proper” English and the uniqueness of the English language. If you want a preview, listen to the Freakonomics podcast on “Leaving Black People in the Lurch,” which is where I first heard McWhorter.
  • Before 1776: Life in The American Colonies: 36 lectures by Prof. Robert J. Allison of Suffolk University. You learn the distinct history behind the founding of each colony and see how those experiences shaped the new country. Fun fact: You could consider South Carolina a colony of Barbados as much as a colony of England.
  • The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction: 36 lectures by Prof. David Schmid of the University of Buffalo. I’ve read lots of detective fiction, including all the Sherlock Holmes stories. This course gave me new authors to explore, as well as the background of favorite writers such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Schmid also weighs in on the case for Edgar Allan Poe being the first to write a detective story.

Your taste will likely differ from mine. No worries. There’s content that’ll address any interest. I’ve never sought out “how to” courses, but you can learn photography, cooking, gardening and even investing. Art appreciation, music appreciation, philosophy, and many areas of science and math are represented.

Courses are offered on DVDs, CDs or streaming, each with a different price point. If you go to The Great Courses website, you’ll see some eye-popping list prices for its courses. I’ve never paid anything near those list prices. The site is constantly running sales, offering coupon codes or otherwise discounting its courses on a rotating basis.

In many cases, I’ve paid nothing at all by accessing courses through my local library. There are at least three ways this can be done:

  • Borrow the DVDs or CDs from the library.
  • Stream the content through either Hoopla or Kanopy, assuming your library offers these online resources.
  • Pick up courses at the library’s used book sale. Yes, this costs something, but it’s often not much.

Best of all, there are no tests with The Great Courses, and you can choose whether to do the homework. I took a course on The Illiad and read each set of chapters before the lecture that discussed them. No question it added to my appreciation, but no one was checking. Still, with most of the courses, I simply watch and enjoy.

Howard Rohleder, a former chief executive of a community hospital, retired early after more than 30 years in hospital administration. In retirement, he enjoys serving on several nonprofit boards, exploring walking paths with his wife Susan, and visiting their six grandchildren. A little-known fact: In May 1994, Howard was featured—along with five others—on the cover of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance for an article titled “Secrets of My Investment Success.” Check out his previous articles.

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