The Spirit of HILR

The Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement has earned a reputation for national, if not global, preeminence based on the level of its academic excellence. This is no small feat considering that courses are 100 percent peer-led by members with radically divergent backgrounds and interests. A former professor of engineering at MIT alternately leads courses in “Reading Fiction with a Crafty Eye,” and “The Geological Plateau of Colorado,” or “The Physics of Music.” A retired commercial real estate manager at John Hancock leads courses in French philosophy and contemporary art, when not delving into Atheism and Postmodernism.

Herein lies the magic of HILR: how members are motivated to stretch the powers of their imagination and curiosity to propose courses in subjects that beckon them and that they know will interest other people. HILR has cultivated a large corps of members to lead seminar courses in history, literature, art, science, philosophy, technology, poetry, writing and foreign languages. Members find that leading a course is more than gaining privileged knowledge of a subject; imparting that knowledge to their peers is a pleasure and a delight, bringing with it new friendships and intellectual experiences. 

But it is not only the peer-led curriculum that provides the academic distinction of HILR. The smorgasbord of extracurricular events such as the Annual Convocation at Sanders Theatre, the Distinguished Lecture Series, the Fridays at HILR series on international flashpoints, and the Economic Forum all afford members unique opportunities to participate in advanced-level discussions with local and visiting faculty, public intellectuals, foreign journalists, diplomats, leading scientists, and Nobel Prize-winning economists. Guest speakers consistently remark on the high quality of HILR audiences, citing them as a reason to return. 
The creation of community is an intangible process. It begins with a commonality of purpose—in HILR’s case, the development of a compelling curriculum. Ideas begin to spread and the sense of community continues through extracurricular activities—poetry readings, musical productions, Shakespeare performances, group trips abroad, weekend hiking outings—and through the simple act of sharing coffee together between classes. 

HILR has been blessed with two major advantages that foster the growth of community and the sense of belonging that emerge simultaneously: 1) large and comfortable facilities where people can meet and converse; and 2) of even greater importance, an educated and experienced contingent of people motivated to connect, participate, and contribute.