Brooklyn Lifelong Learning: Education for the fun of it

August 24, 2015 Renee Saff
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Brooklyn Lifelong Learning (BLL), a nonprofit adult learning program housed in Brooklyn College’s Boylan Hall, turns the frazzled college student’s daydream of a classroom without tests, homework, or grades into a reality of learning for the sake of learning.

“There are no tests, term papers or grades,” said Morty Marshack in a personal essay he wrote about the BLL. “There are lively discussions. It’s learning just for the fun of it, in a friendly and cooperative atmosphere, with interesting, often challenging, classmates. Also, after so many years, it’s fun to hang out again, in the cafeteria or in the sun by the Lily Pond.”

BLL lives up to this ideal by fostering volunteer-based peer learning among adults through non-credit classes, seminars and cultural activities. By paying an annual fee of $85, adults of all ages are welcome to choose from about 60 courses and lectures each semester, which can range from learning Hebrew, to studying sociology, to practicing tai chi.

In addition to regularly scheduled courses, BLL offers performances, art exhibitions and day-long and overnight trips for its members. To register for classes, students simply need to show up, and there is no limit to the number of classes they can attend. Access to the college’s library and computer terminals, discounted rates to the pool and recreation center, and vouchers for events taking place on campus are all covered by the membership fee.

“I needed to do something more important than just paying bridge and hanging with my friends,” said Linda Khezrie, a BLL member. “I needed an intellectual outlet that I couldn’t get any place else.”

The program aims to create, adapt and maintain an academically-oriented, campus-based learning program by adults for adults. BLL prides itself on being self-governing and keeping its prices down as low as possible, so that people in all economic situations can learn for life. The program only has two paid employees, one full-time and one-part time administrative assistant.

“I had retired at a fairly early age, and I had been looking for something to do that would occupy me in a beneficial way,” said Gene Reiser, president of BLL who also participates in the program as a teacher and student. “There were a number of courses that I thought were really interesting, and the entry rate was so cheap that even if I did one course, it would pay to do it.”

Peer-to-peer learning encourages members with passions for particular subjects to share their excitement and expertise by teaching courses. Retired and active faculty from Brooklyn College and other CUNY campuses also pitch in to teach some of the course offerings.

“All the people that are there are retired schoolteachers and lawyers and professors, but they all have knowledge of the past. When they’re talking about something that happened in 1970, they remember it,” Khezrie said.

BLL, which is one of the oldest lifelong learning programs in the United States, was founded as the Institute for Retirees in Pursuit of Education (IRPE) in 1977, inspired by the New School’s Institute for Retired Professionals.

The program started off as a small organization of about 150 members and a sprinkling of course offerings under the leadership of its first president, Violet Klein. It eventually grew a membership base of over 2,000 people, but factors like changing demographics and later retirement ages have caused that number to dwindle. In 2013, the center became an independent nonprofit organization and was renamed Brooklyn Lifelong Learning.

Despite its name change, BLL still adheres to its original principles. A self-governing body independent of Brooklyn College and having all services provided by volunteers, BLL also plays a social role in its participants’ lives. A Board of Directors establishes BLL’s policies, which are carried out by the president and officers.

“It provides us with tremendous freedom there are no requirements on our program that the college imposes,” said Rona Goldwitz, a BLL executive board member. “We’re free to operate in any way that we see fit and our members convey to us their wishes and desires.”

Today, the program has approximately 600 members and is constantly searching for ways to provide more for them. This summer, for the first time, BLL offered a limited number of summer classes. It’s experimenting with adopting open online course materials, and it began integrated videotaped lectures by renowned professors to expand the topics that could be covered in courses this summer.

On Tuesday, September 28, Brooklyn Borough Historian Ron Schweiger will be giving a free mini class on Brooklyn history to give people a taste of what it’s like to attend BLL. The class will be held from 12:30 to 2 p.m. in room 3129 at Brooklyn College’s Boylan Hall, and participants will also receive information regarding the BLL program of classes, trips and cultural activities.

“It’s transformative,” Goldwitz said. “It really just enriches your life in so many ways.”

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