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 but was denied entry to because he lacked the required pre-requisites. He wanted to take the class in person because, while he could definitely obtain the factual information through the internet and books, studying alone after a long day of work can be tedious and boring. Doing it socially, in a communal atmosphere and under the guidance of an expert was more than appealing–it seemed to be the only way to actually tackle this huge topic.
Talking things over that day, we realized what was keeping us from diving head first into all of the subjects we were interested in, whether pickles or perfume: 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 when you know you have class on Tuesday and the teacher is going to quiz you about the readings. We missed the exciting learning environments we experienced in college and were struggling with a way to keep that feeling of discovery alive now that we were adults with 9-5 jobs and too many errands to run.
What came out of that conversation was the Brainery, our now nearly six-year old one-room schoolhouse in Brooklyn. Today, we host more than sixty classes each month for curious adults on just about any topic under the sun, and they’re all all rooted in our own desire to keep learning new things even though we technically aren’t students anymore.
Almost immediately, we realized we weren’t alone: classes filled up quickly, gathering long wait lists, and lots of blogs and media outlets wanted to write about us. It became clear there was a need and very deep desire for these sorts of educational experiences that allow people to try out new hobbies and learn about the world around them in a casual setting outside the university.
Nowadays, we see folks come to the Brainery for a variety of reasons: some want to push their boundaries and try something that feels uncomfortable, others to gain a practical skill that will benefit them at work or in their personal lives, and some to reconnect with old friends, meet new ones, or just to spend Tuesday night doing something a little different.
One of the most important draws of lifelong learning, both in person and online, is the ability to try out a new hobby or career path without financial burden. A 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 for lifelong learning is something we hear over and over again: people want to feel that spark, to discover something they love doing and that makes them feel good. That can take the form of learning a new hobby like embroidery so they can personalize a baby gift, of mastering their DSLR camera so the photos of their next family vacation look amazing, or of trying improv in a safe classroom setting and realizing they really want to be on stage. It can even be as simple as 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 growing more and more accessible, we’re more likely to understand that excitement 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 Robin Grearson.
Lifelong learning helps make our lives a little bit deeper and each day a little more engaging. Our day-to-day routines can be draining, but the novelty of learning invigorates us 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.