Several years back, a friend and I were hanging out in our kitchen talking about a graduate-level perfume class he was trying to enroll in, to no avail.
According to the university, he lacked the necessary prerequisites.
My friend knew that, if he chose to, he could access the factual information the professor would cover via the Internet and books. But he wanted to take the class in person with classmates — studying alone after a long day of work can be tedious and boring. In fact, learning perfumery in a social, communal atmosphere under the guidance of an expert was beyond appealing; it seemed to be the only reasonable way to tackle a topic as huge as this.
As we talked things over that day, we realized that what kept us from diving headfirst into all of the classes we were interested in — from pickles to perfume — was the lack of a social component.
Sure, you can go ahead and read a book about the science of scent at home each night, but it's a lot easier to stick with it when you know you have class on Tuesday and the instructor is going to quiz you on the readings. We missed the sort of exciting learning environments we had experienced in college, and found ourselves struggling to keep that feeling of discovery alive now that we were adults with 9-to-5 jobs and too many errands to run.
What came out of that conversation was the Brooklyn Brainery, and almost immediately, my co-founder and I realized that we weren't alone: Classes filled up quickly, with long waitlists. Lots of blogs and media outlets wanted to write about our offerings.
It became clear that there was a deep desire for these sorts of educational experiences, opportunities that allow people to try out new hobbies and learn about the world around them in a casual setting outside university.
We host more than 60 monthly classes in our now nearly 6-year-old, one-room schoolhouse in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Curious adults pursue interests in just about every topic under the sun, and these offerings are all grounded in the original desire my co-founders and I had: to keep learning new things even though we technically weren't students anymore.
Today, we see folks come to the Brainery for a variety of reasons: Some want to push their boundaries and try something that feels uncomfortable, while others seek to gain a practical skill that will benefit them at work or in their personal lives. And then there are those who want to reconnect with old friends, meet new ones, or just spend Tuesday night doing something a little different.
One of the most important attractions of these types of classes, both in-person and online, is the ability to try out a new hobby or career path without a significant financial burden. One longtime Brainery student, Marianna Breytman, says, "It's too expensive to keep attending formal schooling when you're not entirely clear on the path you'd like to pursue. Classes like the ones offered by the Brainery and online MOOCs like edX give me the chance to continue exploring my interests and trying new things without breaking the bank."
Another compelling argument is one we hear over and over again: People want to feel that spark, to discover something they love doing and that makes them feel good. This can take many forms: learning a new hobby like embroidery so you can personalize a baby gift, or mastering manual photography with your DSLR camera so the pictures from your next family vacation look amazing. Or maybe you want to try improv in a safe classroom setting to figure out whether you really want to be on stage. Yet another option is simply attending a lecture on the history of a local park and sharing the tidbits you learned with friends on your next outing.
For lots of us, lifelong learning is a continuation of the excitement we felt during our years of formal schooling. Today, with informal education becoming increasingly accessible, we're more likely to understand that this feeling doesn't have to end. "I marked course descriptions like other people browse catalogs for products. Every year a new catalog came out, and every year I fell in love with a new major. After I (finally!) graduated, it never occurred to me to stop taking classes," offers writer Robin Grearson.
Lifelong learning helps make our lives a little bit deeper, and each day a little more engaging. Day-to-day routines can be draining, but the novelty of learning invigorates and stimulates us to action. In the end, learning more about the world around us is one of life's greatest pleasures and most important pursuits.
Want to explore a new interest or pursue a current passion? You can use the free Noodle search tool to find classes near you (or accessible anywhere via the Web).