- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2005

“If a man empties his purse into his head, no one can take it from him.”

Benjamin Franklin

Back in the late 1990s, before Wayne Hudson retired from NASA, there were times that he actually relished getting into his car and making his way through traffic at the end of a long day.

“I never really minded the commute,” says Mr. Hudson, a Reston resident who retired five years ago. “I always had a lecture to listen to.”

As experts speculate why Washington area residents are willing to put up with longer and longer commuting times, they may have ignored one tiny but very important aspect of the equation ” that ubiquitous audiotape or CD from The Teaching Company sitting in the glove compartment. Suddenly, once dull drive time sparkles with commentary about philosophy, science, history or great music. But you don’t have to keep your intellectual pursuits hidden in the car; lifelong learning opportunities sizzle all around the Washington area.

There’s nothing like a bit of intellectual exercise to stimulate the little gray cells, as Hercule Poirot would say. The Smithsonian Resident Associate Program features its own cadre of resident experts. Programs like OASIS, which is geared toward older adults, and the Casa Italiana, which offers specialized instruction in Italian language and culture, benefit from the proximity of well-known figures as teachers. Countless more programs are available at a variety of prices and waiting to help give your own gray cells a bit of snap.

• • •

With thousands of hours of recorded lectures to choose from, Washington-area customers of The Teaching Company have an added bonus; they get to sit in The Teaching Company’s studio and listen to some of the most dynamic lecturers in education today.

“Those who excel at lecture-style teaching tend to be extroverts who like people,” says The Teaching Company founder and CEO Tom Rollins, who has developed an intensive process for finding the best lecturers in the business. “Some of us are wired differently and have to have an audience. It’s hard to do that voodoo that you do so well without other people in the room.”

So there is always a small but attentive audience filling its snug Chantilly studio.

“I find it absolutely essential,” says Elizabeth Vandiver, who has recorded courses about the Odyssey and the Iliad as well as Herodotus, the early Greek historian. “I don’t think I could deliver a convincing lecture just to a camera.”

It’s a thoughtful touch that is just one of the reasons that keeps professors returning again and again to record for the company.

Of course, what keeps the fan base growing is the dynamism of the professors themselves. Among the most popular is music professor Robert Greenberg.

“Before, I always looked at classical music as a big undifferentiated mass of melody,” says William Black, public affairs director at Fleishman-Hillard who listens to The Teaching Company tapes while riding his bicycle in Rock Creek Park. “Now I listen to music in a whole new way. It literally improved the quality of my life.”

Added bonus: Mr. Black also lost 20 pounds while cycling. And he’s got his entire family watching the DVD series on Renaissance art before they vacation in Florence, Italy.

The professors themselves get a lot more positive feedback than they would if they were just talking to a bunch of jaded college students or writing weighty tomes.

“I’m not doing my job if all I do is write 300-page books,” says John McWhorter, author of “The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language” and “Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music in America and Why We Should, Like, Care.” “I want to reach a wide audience.”

About six months ago, Mr. McWhorter recorded his first set of lectures for the company, a series about the development of human language. Since then he’s received at least one communication a day from listeners lauding the project.

In her years with The Teaching Company, Miss Vandiver has received messages from a “whole spectrum” of listeners. Especially poignant are those from people who never finished high school, but are making their way through the Iliad or the Odyssey.

“It astonishes and absolutely delights me how great an appetite there is for intellectually rigorous college-level courses,” she says. “They aren’t dumbed-down or oversimplified, and there’s nothing practical about them at all. People are doing them for the sheer joy of learning.”

• • •

That’s the thing about lifelong learning, experts say. It’s not so much what you don’t know as what you are willing to learn.

“The mission of the Smithsonian is to promote the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” says Mara Mayor, director of the Resident Associate Program. “We are on the diffusion side of the equation.”

Now celebrating its 40th anniversary in the lifelong learning endeavor, the Resident Associate Program is one of the elder statesmen of the movement, with perhaps an even wider array of offerings than even The Teaching Company. This year there are more than 1,100 different educational programs aimed at adults, with several hundred more designed for children ” and there are no pop quizzes, no tests and no outside measures of success. What you do, you do for you.

“We develop programs in every imaginable format, from lectures, to classes, to seminars and performances,” Mrs. Mayor says. “There is almost no subject that doesn’t fall under the Smithsonian’s rubric.”

A recent catalog for the Resident Associate Program is a case in point: an evening with National Public Radio film critic Kenneth Turan in March, an all-day seminar on Renaissance art in the Vatican in April, and a series of courses on everything you may have ever wanted to know about wine in May.

“It really is a resource like no other,” Mrs. Mayor says. “We offer things that you can’t get anywhere else.”

Some of its lecturers have proved so popular that they even have their own followers.

“Ed Bearrs has his own groupies,” she says, referring to the Civil War historian who routinely leads excursions to historic sites around the area.

“For the Smithsonian you need the right mixture,” says Edward McCord, associate professor of Chinese history and international relations at George Washington University, who is giving a series of lectures about Chinese cities. “You have to condense a lot, but you want to tell the kinds of stories that will illuminate what you say. It’s different than talking to historians.”

A nearly three-hour lecture that caps off a long day might be a bit off-putting for some, but not for Ricki and Robert Allison, retirees who live in Crystal City. They were thinking about traveling to China, so they signed up for Mr. McCord’s series.

“It’s a marvelous opportunity to keep the gray cells going, and it gives us something to talk to the grandchildren about,” Mr. Allison says.

• • •

Keeping seniors stimulated intellectually and physically is the rationale behind OASIS, a national nonprofit endeavor that offers a variety of courses geared toward older adults. A public-private partnership that was founded in 1982, OASIS centers are located in 26 cities throughout the United States. In the Greater Washington area, OASIS is sponsored by Suburban Hospital, which offers an array of classes, lectures and other events in local Lord and Taylor department stores.

At the Gaithersburg OASIS in the Lord and Taylor store at Lakeforest Mall, OASIS members can sign up for art history or digital design programs, as well as exercise or swimming classes, director Marcy Drozdowicz says.

Currently more than 500 fiftysomethings are involved with OASIS activities. Guest teachers have included a professor from the Peabody Conservatory of Music and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at George Mason University.

“We feel that we really enrich their lives by offering programs that appeal to them,” Mrs. Drozdowicz says. “When people are active and keep their body and mind moving they are less depressed.”

• • •

Of course, the setting itself can be a spur to learning, as essential as a cup of cappuccino after a long day. At Casa Italiana in the old Italian section of Northwest D.C., you can have both.

First, the setting. Picture four statues, of Dante, Verdi, Michelangelo and Marconi, representing writing, music, art and science. Inside, paintings of Italy and copies of old masters conjure up images of the old country.

At Casa Italiana, the theme is on all things Italian. Want to learn to speak the language? Casa Italiana offers basic and intensive courses for beginners. Need to polish some long-disused skills? Classes at intermediate levels will help you to expand your vocabulary without starting from scratch. Hoping to travel to Italy? Italian for travelers will let you in on the things you need to know to get from La Fenice to the Ponte Vecchio.

In addition to language courses, the school also offers classes in cultural enrichment, like a cooking series or a course devoted to Italian artistic ceramics.

“It’s the only class in Italian ceramics taught by an Italian artisan on the East Coast,” says Olga Mancuso, director of Casa Italiana Language School.

The artisan, by the way, is Roberto Paolinelli, who began working at the Castelli ceramics factory in Italy when he was just 18. One of his pieces is in the White House, a gift to the Clintons after he earned his American citizenship. His work is frequently featured in local galleries.

The cappuccino and cookies idea began when school officials realized that many of their students were coming to Casa Italiana directly from work and needed a bit of a pick-me-up. Classes are also offered to children and adults on Sundays.

The school began as an outreach of Holy Rosary Church, long associated with the Italian community of Greater Washington.

Today, many second- and third-generation Italian Americans make use of the classes and other activities to help them reclaim their past. Non-Italians frequently take classes before traveling to Italy or simply to delve further into an aspect of Italian culture.

The best thing about lifelong learning, people say, is that learning one thing always makes you want to learn some thing more.

“Initially, I thought I was most interested in history and religion,” says Mr. Hudson, who has several thousand hours of lectures to his credit. “But what I’ve discovered is that a really good professor on a topic can make almost anything interesting.”

Satisfying your urge to learn

Want to extend your own learning? It’s easy to find lectures and classes in the Greater Washington area. In addition to those places mentioned in the story, National Geographic, the National Archives and the Library of Congress all offer lectures, performances, workshops and seminars designed to enrich your education. Local libraries and bookstores frequently feature book talks and other events.

• To find out more about The Teaching Company, call 800/TEACH-12; visit its Web site (www.TEACH12.com); or write to The Teaching Company, 4151 Lafayette Center Drive, Suite 100, Chantilly, VA 20151-1232. Costs vary by course and format (CD, DVD, etc.).

m For more information about the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program, access its Web site (www.ResidentAssociates.org). You can also register by telephone at 202/357-3030 Mondays through Fridays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Costs vary for type of class, with reduced costs for Resident Associates members and senior citizens.

m OASIS in Gaithersburg can be reached at 301/869-1508 between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Access it on the Web (www.oasisnet.org/gaithersburg) or by mail in care of Lord and Taylor, 701 Russell Ave., Gaithersburg, MD, 20877. (There is also an OASIS at the Lord and Taylor store in Chevy Chase. Call 202/362-9600, Ext. 560, between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. for more information about classes at this location.) Membership in OASIS is free, although there are nominal fees associated with different classes.

• Casa Italiana is located at 595½ Third St. NW, Washington DC 20001. Most adult classes are $225 for 12 lessons unless otherwise noted. Reach them on the Web (www.CasaItalianaSchool.org) or call 202/638-1348 for more information about classes and sessions.

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