SPECIAL FROM Next Avenue
The nation's most entertaining professors explain everything you need to know about their favorite subjects -- in one hour
Taking a class to learn about managing your money can be extremely useful, but I’m an even bigger fan of education that pays psychic dividends. My favorite way to do it is through something called One Day University. And based on the exuberance I saw among its students -- mostly in their 50s and older -- at last Sunday’s One Day U in midtown Manhattan, I’m not alone.
One Day University describes itself as offering “the best professors from the finest schools, teaching their greatest courses.” That’s true, but it’s more fun than that.
From Gershwin to Islam
One Day U recruits professors that college students rave about and brings all those instructors together for a Saturday or Sunday to give entertaining, one-hour lectures on subjects ranging from The Genius of George Gershwin to Why Some People Are Resilient and Others Are Not to What Is Islam? Tuition for the day is typically $239 ($119 for returning students); for a half-day, it runs $99 to $119 ($69 to $89 for returnees).
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The key word is “entertaining.” As One Day U founder and director Steven Schragis told me: “People who come love to learn. They’re not here to reach a goal. If you don’t think it’s fun to find out what Mozart was really like, we’re not for you.”
Sure, you could watch free lectures from esteemed faculty members online at sites like Academic Earth, Coursera (one of my Next Avenue colleagues is a huge fan), iTunesU or YouTube. But seeing the talks delivered in person by professors who teach at schools like Amherst and Yale is so much better -- it’s the difference between attending a Broadway show and watching a sitcom on TV.
How One Day U Came About
Schragis came up with the idea six years ago after taking his daughter to Bard College as a freshman on Welcoming Day. Some of the school’s professors gave brief lectures to the frosh parents, offering a taste of the education that awaited their kids.
“It was really fun,” Schragis told me. “The parents I saw said: ‘I’d like to do this every day. I want to go back to college.’”
Since then, more than 15,000 students have enrolled in One Day University classes in such cities as New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. There are roughly 30 events a year; half in New York City and half elsewhere. Dallas is likely next spring.
One Day U programs are conducted primarily in big cities because they offer the largest potential audience, Schragis says, and also because professors like to go to those towns and make a fun weekend out of it.
A Unique Way to Appreciate Beethoven
Most of the One Day U’s I’ve attended were in New York (once with my parents in tow), but my favorite locale was the One Day U I attended with my wife, Liz, at Tanglewood, the famed outdoor music venue in the Massachusetts Berkshires. We heard Harvard’s Thomas Kelly explain why Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was a masterpiece then -- get this -- saw the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Chorus perform it. Take that, YouTube!
Students tend to be 50 or older for a few reasons. “Younger people in their 30s and 40s often don’t go because their kids have soccer practice or they’re just exhausted from the work week,” Schragis says. “The ones who come are at a stage in their lives where they can go to school for a day -- about 20 percent are retired.” Also, he adds, a love of learning is not something you tend to develop early in life.
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At last Sunday’s One Day U, the roughly 3,000 students -- many of them couples -- could attend five one-hour lectures taught by 12 professors in assorted New York Hilton ballrooms. Some pupils came from as far as Wyoming and Texas.
“We used to offer six classes,” Schragis says. "That’s too much -- it’s exhausting. At the end of the day you should be a little worn out, but have enjoyed the experience.”
What I Learned at One Day U
Like many One Day U students, I didn’t go to all five sessions; I sat in on four. Here are the highlights:
Congress and Obama or Romney in 2013: What to Expect Next James Morone, a political science professor at Brown University, looked like comedian Robert Klein and, at times, sounded like him too. (I told you that entertaining was a key component of One Day U.) Morone said he expects Obama to win with 51 percent of the vote, but called Romney’s performance and lift from the first debate “one of the most extraordinary returns in modern election history.” Either way, don’t expect much from Congress in 2013, Morone said, because “the Senate is organized to avoid action.”
Why Some People Are Resilient and Others Are Not Resilience, said Andrew Shatté, a professor at the University of Arizona, “determines who succeeds, who’s satisfied with their jobs and lives and how happy you might be.” The key: your thinking style. To become more resilient, Shatté said, it helps to believe in yourself and have what he calls “realistic optimism,” with a sense of meaning in your life.
Frank Gehry: Architecture as Art You really had to be there for this one, since it was largely visual. But I came away from the class by Esther da Costa Meyer, an architecture professor at Princeton, with fresh knowledge of Gehry's creative process. For example, Gehry doesn’t use a computer to design his unique fold-style buildings, like Disney Hall in Los Angeles, because he thinks “it takes the juice out of ideas.” His staffers, on the other hand, use highly sophisticated aerospace software.
How We Make Decisions (and How We Can Make Better Ones) To see how we’d arrive at answers to 10 questions that would likely stump us, Scott Plous, a social psychologist at Wesleyan University, challenged the audience to come up with high and low estimates.
We had to guess, for example, the length of the Nile River in miles, the number of books in the Old Testament and the gestation period of an Asian elephant in days. (Answers: 4,187 miles, 39 books and 645 days.)
The best decision makers, he said, would get just one wrong. I flubbed three.
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Plous’s advice for improving the decision-making process: Think of an answer that could be wrong, come up with a second estimate and then average the two. One study found that “performance improves 72 percent of the time” by following that formula, he said. “It’s like crowdsourcing with yourself.”
The next One Day U in New York City is Sunday April 21. The tentative list of courses includes The Business of Hits: Producing the Next Lady Gaga, Facebook, Avatar and iPhone;What’s So Great About Michelangelo; The Art of Aging and The Psychology of Money.
Maybe I’ll see you there.
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