Thursday, December 31, 2009

Lifelong Learning Thursday

Nancy Merz Nordstrom, author of Learning Later, Living Greater: The Secret of Making the Most of Your After 50 Years will share the benefits of Lifelong Learning on Thursdays.

The Secret for Making the Most of Your After-50 Years.

Lifelong Learning in Your Later Years…
A Health Club for Your Mind, Body, and Spirit!

This week we’ll take a look at the development of Elderhostel, Inc., North America’s first and largest not-for-profit, educational travel provider.

Everything started with one aging non-conformist, a college educator, and concern for the plight of older adults in the climate of the 1970s. What emerged was a brand new opportunity for enrichment and fulfillment in your later years – Elderhostel, Inc.

In the late 1960s, Elderhostel co-founders Martin (Marty) P. Knowlton, a social and educational innovator and David Bianco, a graduate student at Boston University, met while both worked at the residential student program at BU. They were drawn to each other by the unconventionality of their thinking. Both were impatient with the status quo and wanted to explore ways to make education more meaningful. While at BU they collaborated on an article published in the Journal of Education in 1969. In this article, “A Proposal: An Institute of International Life at Boston University,” the roots of what would later become Elderhostel were very evident.

Jump ahead to 1974. Marty Knowlton, had just returned from a four-year backpacking trip across Europe. While there he participated in archeological digs in England and Germany and became familiar with youth hostel programs and the folk-schools of Scandinavia. He was “impressed by the way in which the availability of a network of modest accommodations encouraged and nurtured an adventuresome hostelling spirit in European youth.” He also observed “the very positive impact a residential setting had on adult education programs offered by the folk high schools.”

In the meantime, David Bianco, after serving three years as the Dean of Freshmen at Brandeis University, was now working as Director of Residential Life at the University of New Hampshire. The University had called for a major effort to look at ways the campus could be utilized during the summer. This led to the development of UNH’s American Youth Hostel program, and thanks to their earlier collaboration, Marty was invited to become Director of that program.

Reunited, Marty and David once again began to look at innovative ways education could be improved. Marty, just back from his European travels was talking with David about what he had witnessed. In Marty’s words,

“I was talking with…David, and I was telling him some of the experiences I’d had in Europe with older people, some of which David found rather exciting. And in a burst of enthusiasm, he said to me: This campus ought not to be having a youth hostel, it ought to be having an elder hostel” And there was the day. It was one of those occasions, a serendipitous occasion. The name came first, and we put the program under it.”

After that epiphany, it was all hard work on Marty and David’s part. They spent long hours discussing the program concept, what this nontraditional initiative should and should not be, program details and the cost. Early on they agreed that the format of the program should mirror that of the European youth hostels–a residential program with simple, affordable accommodations.

Both men strongly believed that “when you’re older you learn every bit as well as you ever learned…and probably better.” Therefore the program would have a strong educational component, but the courses would be not-for-credit. They also agreed that the program would be strictly for older adults, and they set the minimum age at 60.

From these early brainstorming sessions, other University faculty and administrators became involved. Letters were sent to people who would be likely to be interested in this new and innovative concept of elderlearning.

It was decided that older adults would go to college campuses to attend week-long educational programs for the joint purposes of “self-enhancement” and the “development of an elderly cadre for community integration.” More field study took place. Colleges and older adults were polled about how they saw this kind of program developing and what they wanted offered. After months of hard work writing grant proposals, developing curriculum and marketing materials, and rounding up support, in the summer of 1975 Elderhostel, Inc. opened its doors.

About that first summer Marty Knowlton says,

“We worked like slaves trying to generate an audience for our courses. And the first Elderhostel met and there were only six people. But we held it – we lasted through the week. We were delighted with the experience and so were the hostelers. And the next week, there were seven. And the next week because the first week group had gone home and begun to talk about it, we had thirteen in the class. And after the fourth week of Elderhostel, for the rest of the summer season we were filled right up and were beginning to turn people away.”

By the end of that first summer 220 hostelers had stayed in campus dorms while attending courses. That number swelled to over 300 when commuters were added to the mix. When participants were asked if they would like to return the next year, every single participant said “yes.” This was the beginning of a pattern of multiple program attendance, of “Elderhostelism,” as it became known. The hostelers had also shown great enthusiasm and vigor for the educational programs, proving that the idea of older adults as used-up, useless and incapable of learning, was very wrong.

The growth of Elderhostel was phenomenal. In 1975, five New Hampshire colleges offered fifteen weeks of programs to 220 participants. In 1976, twenty-one colleges in six states offered sixty-nine program weeks to 2,000 enrollees and another 2,000 applicants were turned away. By the third summer, sixty-one colleges in twelve states offered 156 program weeks and there were almost 6,000 applicants for 4,800 enrollment openings.

The rest, as they say, is history. Within ten years Elderhostel was offering programs in all 50 states and had begun to expand internationally.

The above was taken from The Story of Elderhostel, by E.S. Mills.

The economic historian, Arnold Toynbee said, To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization. The immediate success of Elderhostel certainly personifies this quote as older adults flocked to the new programs, intent on filling their leisure time intelligently.

For more information on Learning Later, Living Greater visit

You can purchase Learning Later, Living Greater at

Till Next Time…

Nancy Merz Nordstrom is Director of the Lifelong Learning Department at Computer School for Seniors (


Sage said...

Very interesting! Happy and Healthy 2010.

Anonymous said...

Excellent. This blog is chuck full of great things. My dreams were put on hold as I worked
and worked and worked. Then I saw
the Richland College Computer School for Seniors. I am so glad you all have promoted academics for us older ones and recognized that seniors really can learn, Going back to school is a dream come true. Thank you for
making it happen.