A year ago I went back to school. I am taking a Latin course which is taught in three-hour sessions one night a week at Georgetown University. The course, designed for aging worker-types such as myself and similar oddniks who have been seized with a desire to get their Latin back or learn it for the first time, is part of the school's Continuing Education program. I have been a little reluctant to bring all this up because I figure it will be a standoff between those who find it pretentious those who find it insane. But I also know the woods out there are full of middle-aged folk who are trying to decide whether this will be the year they take the back-to-school plunge - and I want to urge them on. Yes, it's got its weird, unhinging aspects, but these are trivial compared with the central truth: School is better the second time around.
In fact, continuing or adult education is a growth industry. Zooming enrollment figures and increasing numbers of programs all over the country attest to that. And so, unfortunately, does the bursting forth of a whole new jargon-spouting public/private bureaucracy devoted to the subject. Accordingly, to inquire into the facts about adult education is already to breate deeply of that verbal chloroform ("option papers," "funding models," "delivery systems") that is the mark of a successful enterprise in our society.
Still the outline of what is happening is clear: Schools and universities face the prospect of dramatic declines in numbers of ordinary youthful students, thanks to lower birth rates. At the same time, older people's reasons for going to school have multiplied: early retirement; the desire to get current with new developments in a professional field like medicine or law; an awakened sense of possibility, especially on the part of women who have been encouraged to enlarge their realm of interest beyond the family and the home. So there has been a convergence of interests, and that accounts for the boom. And I suppose if one were forced at gunpoint to accept it, the awful concept of "self-improvement" could be adduced as the common denominator of all these efforts. But I think there is something more elusive and imaginative at play.
To be sure, the typical adult-education offering of courses contains much that is humdrum, how-to practical, and much that amounts to little more than Self-Indulgence I and/or Advanced Navel-Gazing, classes in finding yourself or losing yourself or whatever the going fashion is. And all this mixed in (as at my school) with Tudor Tapestry, Beginning Watercolor, The Labor-Arbitration Process and Math Without Fear can give an impression of form-lessness and chaos. But among all the back-to-school students I have met - and would-be students - there seems to me to be a kind of strange, idiosyncratic drive that is the real motive force, a decision to act on some wild dream or ambition that life's sobering circumstances were long since supposed to have wiped out altogether.
To take my own case: I hated Latin and despised Julius Caesar and all his works as a child. Much, much later in life, drawn to European and classical history, I began first to regret that I could not even begin to read any of the things that interested me in Latin . . . then to wonder if . . . and then positively to want to give the language a try. You might as well know that all this finally embodied itself in a fantasy of retirement of 60 - or sooner, depending on how it goes with the ablative absolute - in which I disappear into the wilds of Eastern Turkey on a red Honda motorcycle, there to feast on Roman history, ruins and inscriptions, only occasionally dropping a fake-solicitous postcard to the folks back home.
Preposterous as that seems, it is only slightly more preposterous than making time for a weekly Latin class (plus homework) seemed when I began. And for those still toying with the back-to-school idea, I can state it as a fact that hard as, say, the gerund-gerundive thing is - and it hasn't got any easier with the passage of 30 years - it was as nothing to the difficulty of actually bringing myself to get the catalog, make the phone calls, send in the check. My flawed mastery of the gerund-gerundive took three weeks to achieve; but acting on my desire to take a course in Latin took three years. None of us in the class has time for it, I should add, including our teacher, a young woman who has a full-time administrative job elsewhere, a household and a small child to look after. But it turns out there is time for what you really want to do. You make it.
You also make, in the beginning, some very startling adjustments in your sense of self, coming to class as most of us necessarily do barnacled over with adulthood's acquired pretensions and ways. Whether with family, friends or office colleagues, we have become accustomed to being treated in a certain fashion. We've picked up a little dignity and authority. There is no way I can convey exactly what it was like the first night last fall that I found myself standing at a blackboard in my 46th year, being instructed by a teacher many years my junior to translate a sentence I couldn't understand. If you think that's not a trip . . .
Actually, all that freight from an earlier experience of school falls away pretty fast. You are there on your own motion. It's got nothing to do with flunking or passing or external standards or familiar commands. (Where do you think you're going, young lady? Well, you're not going anywhere until you finish your Latin.) It is curious that with no formal obligation to do anything you still sweat the homework, make the time, worry the verbs, fight the translations. Why? Not because you are afraid of punishment or opprobrium, but rather because you are afraid of losing the thread, of losing the trail, really, on what quickly begins to take shape as a great and absolutely consuming adventure.
You will have to forgive me if I get a little florid here and come on like an ad for a Great Books course. Our class at Georgetown (now formally known as Latin IV) is a runaway: We are a hard core of eccentrics of mixed ages and purposes who have insisted on going on with our wretched but ever-improving translations of Virgil and Livy. For each of us the hard work has become a kind of liberation. There is a pervasive joy in learning and an endless surprise in seeing a page come alive. There is no competition. No one is trying to get an A over the other fellow's B. Yes, the wooden seats get pretty hard toward the end of the third hour and the overhead lights pretty glaring. And you can be damned tired if, as in the case with most of us, you've come direct from a day at the office. But I have a feeling that we will still be meeting when I am preparing for my red Honda journey into the past. And I don't think we're exceptional. If, once again this fall, you're considering sending for those brochures and catalogs, I have some advice for you: Do it.