Senior Scholar Show-Off: The UW at $25-a-Class

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Recently I learned that the term “defenestration” is derived from a Latin word coined 400 years ago to refer to an unusually vigorous form of political protest—i.e., throwing officials down from the upper-floor windows of a town hall or castle—mounted on several historic occasions by medieval and early modern Bohemians. And they, it turns out, were not just socially unconventional artists whose style flavored Freddie Mercury’s prog-rock masterpiece, but residents of a region that is now part of the Czech Republic.

I owe this and other new-found knowledge to Prof. James Felak of the University of Washington, who ably taught a course I audited last quarter on the history of East Central Europe since 1342. I’m indebted also to the Washington Legislature and to COVID-19.

The legislature in 1975 authorized state colleges and universities to waive tuition and other fees for would-be scholars aged 60 and up. Today, the UW’s ACCESS Program opens a wide range of classes to olds like me for the absurdly low price of $25 per five-credit course, up to two courses per quarter.

(You might almost think our Olympia lawmakers were inspired by the generosity of Juraj Jánošík (1688-1713), the legendary Slovak highwayman who, Robin Hood-style, shared his loot with the poor. That is, until he slipped on some spilled peas in a pub and was captured, tried, and executed—left dangling from a hook pierced through his left side.)

Taking advantage of the ACCESS Program is temporarily much more convenient now because of the pandemic. Schlepping to the U District is out. As in fall quarter, most winter classes beginning in January, and probably spring classes as well, will be online only. Some are convened via Zoom-like software, others are partly or entirely asynchronous; the professor records lectures or presentations and students access them at their convenience.

(Speaking of convenience, for hundreds of years most Central European kings reigned not by hereditary right but as voted on by nobles, who often elected weak or preoccupied foreigners who wouldn’t get in their way.)

It’s not the full campus experience. Except in courses with quiz sections, interactions with teachers and fellow students tend to be limited to email and online discussion boards. Many faculty have been thrust suddenly into teaching online from home, unassisted, without much prior experience or opportunity to adapt. Their doctorates are not in posing before webcams or monitoring audio levels. Even so, for ACCESS students the price is right and the stakes are low, as we’re not expected to take exams or write papers, and no grades go on our permanent records.

(Plus, look at it this way: we’re all luckier than the people of Poland after 1795, when the nation was essentially wiped off the map—divvied up by the Austrians, Russians, and Prussians—and not resurrected until World War I.)

Some courses are closed to ACCESS students, and some are closed—that is, full—before we are registered, after everyone else. But many of the kinds of classes of interest to casual learners tend not to fill up, especially in the humanities.

And looking over the range of course offerings, one can’t help but be impressed by the breadth of the UW’s faculty expertise. The history department, with 40 faculty members, is especially remarkable, and it’s particularly welcoming of ACCESS students. My professor, Dr. Felak, is a noted scholar of the history of Christianity who drew on his own family heritage, by way of a Pennsylvania steel town, for illuminating lectures on the Slovak and Carpatho-Rus peoples, as well as on Poland, Hungary, and the Bohemians/Czechs.

(One lesson from the history of Central Europe is that when it comes to self-determination and stable borders, big countries are better, but not if you’re their neighbor.)

Other state colleges and universities also have tuition waivers for seniors and are offering many courses remotely for now, although you may have to hunt online for information on their waiver programs (looking at you, WSU). The UW makes it easy to register. And your $25 gets you library privileges, if only digitally for the time being, and the option to obtain a Husky Card, which has various benefits including a discounted transit pass if you ever dare to board a bus again.

In conclusion, I’m almost glad to be old enough to qualify not only for an early shot at a shot of vaccine but also for a program that has helped me at last gain some understanding of the Holy Roman Empire. It was neither holy nor Roman.

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Barry is best known as a Peabody Award-winning TV producer and moderator.

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