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History and the Adult Learner

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Elements behind the SOHS OLLI course ’A Tapestry of Cultures’

While adult learners come to Osher Lifelong Learning Institute to explore a variety of interests, recent data indicate that history is paramount among them.

Research from the 2020 national OLLI benchmarking webinar suggests “history” as the primary area of content interest, with approximately 62% of OLLI members ranking it number one. History outranked the interest area “fine arts” by more than 10%.

We experienced this trend firsthand at OLLI at Southern Oregon University with the “Southern Oregon History: A Tapestry of Cultures” class, offered for the first time during winter term 2021. This was the most requested course for winter 2021 and had a final enrollment of 195 students — a record turnout.

Organized by the Southern Oregon Historical Society (sohs.org), the “Tapestry of Cultures” class offers a historical perspective on several of the Indigenous and immigrant communities that have called the Rogue Valley home over the past several hundred years. Focused on little-known or marginalized histories, the class features sessions on Indigenous peoples of Southern Oregon, the numerous ethnic groups that came to work in the valley during the early mining period, members of the local Black community, German-Jewish settlers of Jacksonville, Chinese railway workers, and Latino farmworkers of the 20th century.

A hallmark of the “Tapestry of Cultures” class is its multiple presenter format, with each week’s class session taught by a different scholar (or scholars) knowledgeable about the community at-hand.

Dr. Anna Sloan, SOHS collections assistant and anthropologist, serves as class moderator across all sessions. With a focus on how regional history connects to contemporary social trends, the course addresses the painful histories of racism, exclusion and intolerance in our area while also highlighting the perseverance and ingenuity of those communities that strove to make their homes here.

The adult learning exemplified in the “Tapestry of Cultures” class flows from a long tradition at SOHS. For the past dozen years, it has interacted with adult learners at the monthly “Windows in Time” talks. Much of the content for the “Tapestry of Cultures” class drew from no fewer than 70 such hour-long presentations, no two ever the same, given at lunchtime lectures in the Medford and Ashland public libraries.

Each “Windows in Time” talk involved original research and was presented both textually and visually in the form of maps, art and photographs. The “Tapestry of Cultures” class was a natural extension of these talks, while also introducing new content and partnerships.

But as regards the success of this class, there is something more at play here. What is it that draws so many adult learners to an interest in history?

Course presenter and SOHS Trustee Larry Mullaly suggests that the search for meaning is one of humankind’s basic traits. As he explains, “The mind gropes to understand that life is more than atoms, dust and emotions. We like to see how others made parts into wholes, fashioning society, enterprise and the arts.”

Course moderator Anna Sloan adds that adult learners are particularly drawn to history because it helps make sense of contemporary circumstances.

“Without a comprehensive understanding of where we came from,” she states, “it can be difficult to make sense of why the world looks as it does today, especially in terms of social inequality and power. At the same time, understanding history empowers us to make better decisions for the future.”

Southern Oregon Historical Society Photo. Picking Pears at Eden Valley Orchard, circa 1900.
Southern Oregon Historical Society Photo. Railroad workers in the Siskiyous, 1887
Southern Oregon Historical Society Photo.1 .917 patriotic parade in Medford

At SOHS, we find that good history makes new links and produces surprising connections. It moves beyond the oft-repeated accounts, giving them due regard, but also questioning, probing and digging deeper. The best historical scholarship draws from myriad sources, always seeking fresh insights, but allowing the past to stand on its own. With the benefit of hindsight, history shows how forces and individuals contributed to their moment in time in complex ways. Good history is shaped by contemporary ideas and attitudes, but respects and seeks to contextualize those of yesterday. It is critical, not ideological, allowing the past to speak for itself.

For all these reasons, history has a particular appeal for the mature, adult knowledge seeker, who has lived long enough and seen enough human foibles to share these attitudes — all traits of OLLI learners. For SOHS, the OLLI class proved a perfect fit.

Larry Mullaly is a board member of the Southern Oregon Historical Society, and a retired educator and community college administrator with a love for sharing history. Anna Sloan recently received her Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Oregon. She works as Collections Assistant at the Southern Oregon Historical Society and serves as the instructor for the Southern Oregon History: A Tapestry of Cultures class.