Henrietta Freedman

Henrietta Freedman

Admiring abstract art. Analyzing articles in The Wall Street Journal. Researching the Dead Sea Scrolls. Not the usual activities for an older adult, but for Henrietta Freedman and other local retired professionals, it’s all in a day’s coursework. As co-founder of the Lifelong Learning Institute at Washington University, Freedman has given area seniors the gift of being in college again. And it’s a pleasure, not a chore, this time around.

Now in its 17th year and stronger than ever, the Lifelong Learning Institute offers 4- and 8-week, non-credit, peer-learning courses for those 55 and older at Washington University’s West Campus at Forsyth Boulevard and Jackson Avenue in Clayton. More than 30 courses are offered in subjects ranging from art, architecture, literature, creative writing, philosophy and history to math, science and technology. There are no tests, grades or professors—each course is a study group of active members facilitated by a knowledgeable peer. “It’s not just sitting in a lecture,” notes Freedman, a resident of The Gatesworth. “We ask seniors to be involved.”

As a former Washington University trustee, Freedman cultivated the idea for the Lifelong Learning Institute about 20 years ago after she read about similar programs across the country. A lifelong teacher and avid volunteer, her belief is one never has to stop learning. “Being a senior means giving up a lot of things, but this is something you can take into yourself,” she says. “There’s an excitement there that really makes a difference in the way people age.”

Freedman’s greatest interests always have revolved around teaching and learning from both the young and old. “I’ve always liked younger people and I’ve always liked the older people.” Her love for learning began at Harris Teachers College, where she attended courses until she married her husband, Rudolph. Since married women could not be teachers at that time, she turned her attention to other teaching opportunities—through motherhood and volunteering. Freedman taught her three children, as well as other kids, at the nursery school at the Y (now the Jewish Community Center), and Sunday school at Shaare Emeth. “I thoroughly enjoyed working with the kids and I learned a lot from them,” she recalls. “They taught me to look at children as little people and realize that each child has a unique personality that doesn’t develop overnight, but as they grow up. And if you treat them as individuals, they respond to it. We got along fine.”

After Freedman’s kids grew up, she wanted to finish what she started with her own higher learning. At Washington University, she completed a liberal arts degree with a major in psychology and a minor in gerontology in 1975. Gerontology was a new concept at the time, and it really sparked Freedman’s interest. “People were just beginning to think about seniors as they started living longer and becoming this subsection of society. And there was this notion of, so what do we do with ourselves?”

Today, the Lifelong Learning Institute answers that question. There are older members of the community excitedly purchasing their books and anxiously anticipating each new semester, Freedman says. While the courses run in 8-week segments in the fall, winter and spring, a 4-week summer class recently had to be added because demand was so high, she explains. “Whenever I meet people, they will thank me for starting (Lifelong Learning). There was one lady who said, If I had $1 million, I’d give it to you. She said it gives her something to get up for in the morning and something to talk about other than kids and grandkids, or aches and pains.” The classes often are the most interesting parts of the students' days, she continues. “We talk about a play, about what a piece of art means to you, or about what you see in the world. When you learn something new, you see something in a different way and you feel different.” Freedman says the program is becoming more and more academic, with new members bringing in different ideas and retired professors becoming facilitators. And it’s as much a social experience as an academic pursuit. Classes run for two hours, with a coffee and cookie break in the middle. “It gives you the opportunity to get out and talk to people you wouldn’t ordinarily meet,” Freedman notes. 

Young people—Washington University students or attendees’ family members—also periodically sit alongside seniors, and they learn from each other. Freedman and her husband have taken classes together, and their children even attend when they are in town from Colorado and England. “It’s good for them and good for us,” she says. 

What started as just a couple of classes and 25 students in 1996, has become 1,000 active members and dozens of study groups meeting in four large classrooms. “It’s been booming. We now have a second generation of students,” Freedman says, adding that she never could have started the institute without the support of her husband. The program continues to be led by two Washington University deans, Anne Hetlage and Jane Smith, and now also has a director, Catherine Compton.

And all this love for teaching the old and the young has not gone unnoticed. Freedman has been recognized by Washington University with the Dean’s Medal for her work with Lifelong Learning. “I think we are serving the university and the community, along with ourselves,” she says.

For more information about Lifelong Learning Institute, call 935-4237 or visit lli.ucollege.wustl.edu

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