Old Dogs, New Tricks

Boise State's Renaissance Institute gets a big boost from Osher Foundation


So what if you've already got a college degree, or that your children or even grandchildren are the ones heading to school—there are still plenty of opportunities for continuing education, thanks in part to a $100,000 grant from the Osher Foundation.

Boise State's Renaissance Institute, which began with a $700 start-up grant from the Idaho Humanities Council five years ago, may soon provide permanent educational opportunities in Boise, with topics ranging from classical studies to landscaping and the Internet.

The Renaissance Institute, which began in 2002 as a program for the adult community, received the renewable two-year grant from the Bernard Osher Foundation this year, and a name change to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

The Osher Foundation, headquartered in San Francisco, was founded in 1977 by Bernard Osher, a businessman and community leader. According to the institute's Web site, the foundation works to improve quality of life by supporting both higher education and the arts. Rather than just handing out grants, the foundation focuses on providing post-secondary scholarship funding to colleges and universities across the nation, with special attention placed on older, re-entry students.

Classes will be taught in Boise and abroad, using Boise State meeting halls as well as other, more interesting venues meant to enhance the presentations.

Like a university without walls, Osher offers lectures, non-credit courses and special events in locations with particular significance for the presenter; earlier this year the Idaho Botanical Gardens participated in a day-long seminar on drought-tolerant landscaping for the institute. An upcoming free presentation about Abraham Lincoln will be taught by Federal Judge Steven Trott in the Boise City Council Chambers.

If the current program, which already boasts 500 members, achieves its goal, the institute will become eligible for a $1 million endowment from Osher. Organizers credit the Institute's success to the collaborations with faculty members at Boise State and Idaho State University, as well as government, library and media institutions.

The institute is offered through Boise State's Division of Extended Studies, and the university recently joined other institutions across the country that have OLLI programs, including Duke, Clemson University, the University of California-Berkeley, Rutgers College, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Washington and the University of Utah.

Billed as a "spa for the mind," the learning institute begins its spring lineup in January, with topics ranging from computers to Victorian England. In keeping with the theme of cross-cultural studies, several institute members will head to Mexico in February for a two-week study journey in Cuernavaca, where they will study both the language and Mexican history.

"It's quite a place—where the Aztec nation fell when Spaniard Cortez killed Montezuma, their chief," said Osher Institute Director Ellie McKinnon. "We are making this trip in conjunction with the University of Washington and the University of New Mexico."

For those who want to keep their travels regional, the institute is offering a trip to the Idaho National Laboratory in April.

Classes in Boise will cover a range of topics, from American History to the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict, taught by University professors and community experts. Osher membership costs $35 and guarantees seating in all the lectures. Non-credit classes last longer and cost a little more—an average of $45 for four eight-hour classes. Classes are open to all Institute members.

As part of the spring lineup of Osher classes, Greg Raymond, the Frank Church professor of international relations, will present a four-part lecture series on the writings of Greek historian Thucydides.

"I take an interdisciplinary approach to teaching international relations," Raymond said of his participation with Osher. His class will also focus on the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens in the 5th century B.C.

"My goal is to link up historical figures to help people understand current events," Raymond said. "Thucydides remains one of the foremost observers of international affairs. His account of the Peloponnesian War is one of the greatest works of social science ever written related to the study of war and peace. It is a work of genius."

Raymond will outline Thucydides' account of the war between Athens and Sparta in light of current international relations.

"Why would these two former allies, after defeating the Persian Empire, fight one another?" he said. "According to Thucydides, the war began because of the rise of Athenian power and the fear it created in Sparta, which was the greatest military nation at that time."

Raymond draws parallels between the fears of Sparta in the 5th century B.C. and the situation of United States foreign relations in the 21st century.

"Thucydides saw patterns in the causes for wars, like the rise of peer competition, such as with the rise of China today," Raymond said. "He also asked important questions for us today, such as 'What happens to a democracy during a long and protracted war?'"

For life-long learners interested in doing their own research, Boise Public Library electronic resources librarian Glenna Rhodes will present techniques for exploring the rich trove of information in free library databases. Rhodes is taking time off from her library duties to offer the hands-on class in the computer lab at the Boise State Albertson Library entitled "Mastering and Mining the Internet."

"Many people don't know what is already available through their tax dollars from library databases," Rhodes said.

She often finds herself networking with database vendors and answering questions like "When should I be Googling and when should I be on a database?" As part of her class, Rhodes will show how databases offer deeper and more authoritative content than the Internet.

"The New York Times may give you the last two weeks of content," she said. "The library has data going back to 1980, including the Wall Street Journal for investment information, data on a particular health condition, and travel information. Google can get you to the door of the library, but you have to know how to enter or you will be missing out."

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