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Learning New York History in the Streets

One thing that is immediately apparent from talking with Mary Beth and Walter Buck, two auditors who believe in lifelong learning: they are having a lot of fun. The seventy-something retirees, married for fifty years, who moved full-time to New York City about five years ago, are taking advantage of the learning opportunities in Columbia University’s Lifelong Learners Program.

In Professor Kenneth Jackson’s History of the City of New York class, the Bucks went to the famous Greenwich Village Halloween Parade dressed up alongside Jackson and students. Mary Beth was Andy Warhol, and Walter was Warhol’s mother, a process that he described as: “wearing a six-dollar size 24 dress from New Jersey," plus "inflatable or rubber accoutrements to look more well- endowed.”

Outside of the parade, what Walter got from the class was a deeper appreciation for the city’s development. “It started out as a commercial venture rather than a religious venture, which in Jackson’s argument is what made it a success.” One thing Mary Beth has enjoyed about this class - and others is that “you’re reading primary sources."

In another class that the couple took with Dr. Jackson, Modern Warfare, the professor made good use of the auditors, many of whom were veterans who served in Vietnam and Iraq. They had the chance to talk about their experiences. It’s part of the intellectual stimulation of these classes. As Walter noted, “the penchant of the auditors is to talk, and the intellectual stimulation here is better if you find a professor who doesn’t mind auditor participation.”

Walter has audited a series of history classes, while Mary Beth, a docent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has audited classes in Art History. One class that they’re taking together right now is Jose Moya’s Barnard history class on World Migration. According to Dr. Moya, the Bucks and other auditors bring an invaluable presence to these classes. “They contribute a type of diversity, generational, that often goes unnoticed in colleges and universities perhaps because we have come to associate education with a specific age cohort rather than seeing it for what it is: a lifelong experience,” Moya wrote in an email. “Their intellectual curiosity and passion for learning is contagious and reminds us that despite the professor/student dichotomy, we all are, or should be, students.”

The Bucks have enjoyed these classes, and also, the time with the bright young students in the Columbia community. “They are so honest, and dedicated, and smart,” Mary Beth said. Part of their interest in classes is because, as Mary Beth put it, the brain is a muscle and you have to use it. At Columbia, they’ve found a community that makes a point to say that “it’s an open university.” They told me that it’s the sort of thing that other seniors should start to do, as well, telling me to recommend this option to my parents. “It puts a spring in your step,” Mary Beth said. In urgent times, perhaps staying curious and prioritizing intellectual curiosity is a way to approach the later years with vigor.

Learn more about the Auditing and Lifelong Learners programs at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies.