Seniors Head Back to the Classroom

By Suzanne Besser

Last week was ‘back to school’ week for many seniors on the Hill. These, seniors, though, aren’t facing grueling SAT tests or winning college essays. They’ve already done that and, as a result, had long successful careers as executives, doctors, lawyers, professors, businessmen, parents and homemakers.

Now they are back in the classroom, this time to learn from each other. And, as participant Harold Weintraub said with a smile in his voice, “You know you’ve just got to keep those gray cells moving or you’ll lose them.”

Weintraub is one of 175 students from the neighborhood and beyond who have enrolled in more than 20 courses offered this fall by the Beacon Hill Seminars (BHS), a community of shared learning that has been welcoming active participants of all ages and walks of life since 1999.

There’s no questioning that Weintraub is keeping his own gray cells on a treadmill. The Beacon Street resident has enrolled in three courses every term since his 2008 retirement from an around-the-clock medical practice as a diagnostic nuclear radiologist. Before then, his work had kept at bay the interest in liberal arts studies he had developed while a student at Yale. Retirement gave him the time he needed. He jumped right into the BHS community.

This fall, Weintraub will review and discuss selected articles by Alexis de Tocqueville, Samuel Huntington and other much-cited savants in a seminar entitled “What’s Gone Wrong with Democracy,” led by Back Bay’s Mark Yessian who draws on his own academic and political background as well as three decades of government service at the federal level.

Weintraub will also refer to stories from The Economist to examine the historical background and context of world and national affairs beyond what is presented in the media in a seminar led by Francesca Piana, a history, international relations and Spanish scholar and professor.

He says he’ll still have time for his third course, where leader Robert G. Goulet will lead a discussion about sexual politics as evident in classic Hollywood cinema in Much Ado About Many Things: American Romantic Comedies 1929-1959. Goulet, professor emeritus of English at Stonehill College, has in the past developed courses in film history, European and Asian cinema, and television drama.

“We try to have a spread of courses that offers something for everyone,” said Cheryl Miller, BHS executive director. This fall’s offerings range from art history (Giorgio Vasari’s The Role of the Artist), music (Four Nodal Points in Classical Music) and entertainment (Theatre Before the Bard: Did Neanderthals Dance? and Fred Astaire) to the latest newsworthy scientific findings in a form understandable to all (Science in the News), history, politics, writing, literature, museum studies and poetry (Five Poets: Love, Mutability, and the Infinite).

Participants must be BHS members. Annual dues of $200 plus a $200 registration fee allows them to take up to three courses each term. Classes, which are designed as small group discussions, take place at the Aldrich Center Meeting Space at The Engineering Center on Walnut Street, King’s Chapel Parish House and Prescott House on Beacon Street, Harvard Musical Association on Chestnut Street and Mt. Vernon Street Meeting House Room.

Seminar leaders donate their time. “Most leaders have taught and are well-qualified,” said Weintraub. “They bring their experiences to the class. A lot of what they are discussing is augmented by the students. Some have a fair amount of readings, either recommended books or articles sent by the leaders. There are no tests, no lectures, no papers and no credit for anything, just learning.”

Historian and former library administrator Thomas Horrocks of Cambridge is leading his first seminar this term. Like so many leaders before him, he was discovered by a BHS member who heard him speak at another venue and thought his topic suitable for a class. “When asked, I was glad to do it,” said Horrocks. “I am looking forward to the class and hope we have good discussions. It’s not all about me.”

“The idea of the seminars is not to be entertained,” ” said Weintraub, who now also serves on the BHS board of directors and its curriculum committee. “If you don’t participate or don’t do the reading, it’s really a waste. It is wonderful that we can do this here. It’s very convenient. The classes are great. And there’s a lot to learn, now that I have the time.”

 The fall classes are now underway. Registration for the winter term begins in December. For more information, contact Miller at (617) 523-0970 or go to www.beaconhillseminars.org.

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