More adults file into class for some serious learning

RIDGEWOOD, N.J. — RIDGEWOOD, N.J. -- While the debate over the study of Western Civilization rages among the dons from Columbia to Stanford, Philip Dogon remains steadfast in his teaching goals: to help even the clumsiest homeowner learn to rewire a lamp or repair a toilet.

He does this in nine Tuesday nights at the Ridgewood Community School in course No. 502: "Be Your Own Fix-It Handyman, It's Really Easy." His specialty is one of about 170 courses or lectures this fall in this suburb's version of a perennially popular form of learning, the adult education program.


With roots in the community forums of the 19th-century Lyceum movement and the Americanization classes for immigrants 75 years ago, the modern adult education program has come to reflect who Americans are, what they want and what they need. And while the poor economy has taken its toll on class rolls in the last four years, the overall picture is strong and growing stronger, said Julie Coates, information director for the Learning Resources Network in Manhattan, Kan., which helps track trends in the field.

In the last decade, she said, enrollment nationwide has doubled, to 15 million, with baby boomers and retired people signing up in large numbers at colleges, public schools or independent programs for everything from acrylic folk art to yoga.


The curriculum, from a few dozen courses in some towns to a few hundred offerings in others, is usually a reflection of the community it serves, as well as of fads, fashions or, at the moment, of economic necessity -- the need to find a job in a tenacious recession.

In cities like New York, adult courses are intended primarily to provide access to trades, office jobs or the health-care industry; instruction tends to be skill-related and offered free or at nominal cost. There are no electives like "Realistic Options in Hair Restoration" (Ridgewood); "About Men -- What Do They Want? For Men Only" (Scarsdale, N.Y.), or "My Aching Back" (taught by a local chiropractor in Milford, Conn.).

Across the country, Ms. Coates said, two-thirds of those enrolled are women, many have college degrees and most have some college experience and higher-than-average incomes. Recently, she said, men and women between the ages of 28 and 46 have been attracted to courses that provide what she called "catered experiences." She cited an apocryphal "gourmet canoeing" class, but also said that lessons in stand-up comedy, dress for success or self-esteem for women were gaining popularity.

Growth has also been rapid among older people.

"They want to remain part of contemporary life and communicate with their grandchildren," Ms. Coates said. "Some want to learn to do spread sheets, to learn what they need to do to manage their own finances in retirement." Some, she said, are engrossed in writing their family histories and want to learn word processing to continue the project.

Ms. Coates said she was also seeing record enrollments in courses on backyard ecology, "hands-on things that individuals can do to help the environment." Ridgewood offers eight of these, but another class on learning to install an underground sprinkler system was canceled for lack of interest. Other big draws are parenting classes, courses on how to communicate with teen-agers and financial planning for retirement or for a child's college education.

But business, finance and computers seem to hold the edge in popularity, and schools are also branching out to do on-site training in new technology or management techniques in suburban office parks.

"We've become more serious, particularly in the last two years," said Dr. Ronald Verdicchio, executive director of the Ridgewood program. "People are coming to us to be retrained. While we have some crafts and recreation, our focus tends to be substance. That's changed with the economy and the times."