Soapbox: A place for intellectual retirees

By Elaine Greene Weisburg

Members of The New School’s Institute for Retired Professionals are accustomed to hearing fellow members express their gratitude for this Greenwich Village learning center. This reporter, a member since 2005, has often heard the following comment in one form or another: “The IRP saved my life.”

Of the dozen or so IRP retirees living in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, several have been members for two decades. Among them are Rhonda Gelb who went from school guidance counselor to retirement counselor at J.P. Morgan; Harriett Zwerling, who taught two generations of fourth graders in Greenpoint; and Beverly Butler, a retired city social worker.

For over 50 years this arm of The New School has been an inspirational pioneer in the lifelong education movement, a movement that the aging of the baby boomer generation is actively fueling. The IRP, although a part of a university, does not draw upon its faculty. We practice peer learning which means we, the members, run our program and conduct our classes under the guidance of the IRP executive director.

The intellectual and social energy humming at the IRP is not satisfied by official study groups. Travel committee member-volunteers arrange adventures of all sizes. Relative newcomer Lowell Diamond, IRP class of 2010, is the retired proprietor of a Stuy Town health-food store near his home. His travel committee task is to find tempting destinations in the city like the Mount Vernon Hotel — a 1799 former carriage house still standing in Manhattan. Trips abroad are also arranged by the committee: Cuba was a recent destination. There are also three SIGs — Special Interest Groups.

One attends local theater performances, another features concerts, a third art shows. IRP members publish an online magazine Voices containing members’ writing, photography, and art work. A Men’s Group copes with their 60-40 minority gender status at IRP by holding a weekly segregated meeting some women would love to bug.

Retirement usually ends the opportunity to meet new friends and the IRP’s reversal of this sad situation is a vital part of its appeal. Finding companionship — from going to the movies to vacationing together, from hospital visits to birthday parties — this is the “life saving” members speak of.

Member Doris Wallace reflects on this as she recalls a medical crisis in her life when she was also coping with new widowhood. “I was welcomed back warmly, schedules were adjusted with kindness. I had a true support group. I knew I was in a worthwhile place.”

Our community is some 300 strong. In addition to teaching and social work, most of our members’ careers were spent in law, medicine, business, and academia. Members join IRP by submitting an application and meeting with an admissions committee team for an interview.

There is an annual fee of approximately $1,000, and scholarships are available. New members commit themselves to join two or three study groups (IRP-speak for its seminar-style classes) each 12-week semester. After a year or two, new members may be ready to coordinate a study group of their own or with a partner — possibly in their own professional field, possibly in a field that has always interested them or newly interests them.

Our curriculum committee supervises the creation of 35 study groups each semester. This Fall ’16 semester, study groups include Class in America, Art in the Met, Ferrante Fever, Ovid, Bach, Nature of Knowledge, Legacy of Jim Crow. The range is huge. Peter Cooper resident Lila Soll who has clocked 27 IRP years has a broad scope in her past study group presentations: from Proust to Darwin to Pragmatism.

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