In a college town, a thriving school for (retired) seniors


On a recent sunny Wednesday afternoon, I found myself, a 19-year-old college student, listening to a psychology lecture with 13 other students. Nothing unusual about that, of course, except that every one of the students was over 50.

The smell of coffee and biscuits wafted through the air as we sat at round tables listening to Bruce Roberts, a former St. Olaf College professor, speak about “The Psychology of Life After Retirement.”

His class is one of many offered by the Cannon Valley Elder Collegium (CVEC), an unusually high-powered continuing education program thanks to its being located in Northfield, home town to two leading liberal arts colleges, St. Olaf and Carleton.

The CVEC, now in its 13th year, was co-founded by Keith Anderson and Ron Ronning, with start-up funds from the Minnesota Humanities Commission, which has been partially supporting the CVEC annually ever since.

As a former Dean of St. Olaf College, Anderson was in a good position to recruit retired professors from the two local colleges. His wife, Beverly, helped with much of the operation and administrative procedures.

“We decided to make the program ‘community based,’ rather than part of one of the colleges, to keep it as open as possible,” Anderson said.

Deep bench

The school has grown steadily over the years, with 538 students today compared to 193 in its first year.

Following the liberal arts tradition, classes cover a variety of topics ranging from “The Myth of Free Enterprise And The World Economic Crisis” to “The Science of Miracles,” and “The Internet Ate My Newspaper!” Classes, too, change every term, although popular classes sometimes repeat.

The CVEC “provides an opportunity for people to learn about things they’ve been interested in learning, or more about things they’ve learnt about already”, says Bill Carlson, the director of the CVEC.

The CVEC draws heavily on former college professors and students in town, and benefits too from the atmosphere of learning and curiosity bred in college life.

The school has a deep bench of talent to draw on, teaching wise.

“This town is overrun with teachers – people who love to teach. Scholars, yes, but more importantly, teachers,” Carlson said.

Brain trust

The faculty is about “one-third St. Olaf, one-third Carleton, one-third other,” Anderson said.

Meanwhile, the school’s students “aren’t the sort of folks who retreat into gated communities,” said Eric Nelson, an emeritus English professor at St. Olaf and a faculty member at the CVEC.

A 1998 Washington Post article about the CVEC called its faculty and student body an “uncommon brain trust.”

“I’ve always liked that description of Northfield,” Ronning said. “We harvest in an intellectually fertile area.”

Sometimes, the CVEC has been known to attract retirees from beyond Northfield, benefiting the city as a magnet for retirees.

“Northfield attracts a lot of retired people,” says Eric Nelson, an emeritus professor of English at St. Olaf, who also teaches at CVEC. “What brings them here? Certainly not the weather. It’s the social, cultural and educational opportunities of a college town.”

Nelson moved to Northfield with his wife, Riki Kölbl Nelson, because the town seemed like a good place to keep growing and learning.

Scientific studies

“The many learning and teaching opportunities for seniors convinced me and my spouse to spend our ‘golden years’ in this special place,” Riki said.

Margaret McCutchan, a student in Roberts’ class, speaks fondly of Northfield as “a town that is active if you’re interested,” having “lots of lectures and concerts” to attend. She and her husband, “Mac” McCutchan, who are both approaching 90, moved their home a half hour away to Northfield just over a year ago.

Apart from the obvious intellectual gains, the benefits of “life-long learning” as promoted by the CVEC are many. Scientific studies suggest that keeping an active mind can help to delay the onset of age-related illness such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Keeping the mind active also promotes physical health, studies show.

The CVEC deliberately holds its classes in places where seniors live, such as the Village on the Cannon condominium complex, to allow those who are less mobile to still participate in the classes.

Another benefit is to keep learning social skills, especially those appropriate to older ages of life. Mac McCutchan said that taking classes at the CVEC “teaches people skills of interacting with other people.”

“It’s a little different when you get older,” he says, because some seniors are “afraid to interact.”

Main benefactor

Carlson tells of a retired professor friend who initially saw retirement as an opportunity to “read all those books I didn’t get a chance to read while teaching.”

He did that, but soon found “it was meaningless” because there was no longer any purpose in acquiring all that knowledge.

Barbara Evans, a former professor who teaches a class in travel literature, says teaching is the ideal way to keep learning.

“I’m the main benefactor of my courses,” she said. “I get the chance to reorganize what I know in a way to most effectively share that with others, I get to research and learn as I prepare for the courses that I facilitate.”

It also offers a different teaching experience, Nelson said.

“When I reached the age of 65 I was ready to retire, not because I was tired of teaching but because, after 40 years, I was tired of framing everything for 18- to 22-year-olds. It is such a pleasure to work with older students. They are bright and thoughtful and bring a rich range of experience to the classroom.”

To keep the focus on learning, there are no tests at CVEC. As a result, students don’t produce stacks of tests, which, Nelson happily says, leads to one last benefit for teachers at CVEC.

“I don’t have to grade them!”

Copyright @ 2009 Pressville