St. Cloud man attends college classes partly to ‘make up for the screwing around’ he did in his younger years

Bruce Rowan reading one of the assigned books at the library. Photo by Bill Vossler

When Bruce Rowen, of St. Cloud, retired after losing his job in the liquidation of Fingerhut, Inc., he made an unusual decision.

“I’d never really understood math that well, so I decided to start over from the very beginning, and see if I could understand math.”

That thought followed because Bruce had been an inconsistent student. As a youngster in school, he loved reading interesting information. The problem was that the information often wasn’t related to his schoolwork.

“So instead of  doing required class work, I was going to the library to find things interesting to me to read, like The Journals of Lewis and Clark, and I attempted to read a book on biochemistry. I also horsed around a lot, and just skimmed by with regular work, so I wasn’t an outstanding student at Marcus Community School in Marcus, Iowa.”

Those habits carried over into college, and along with a heavy dose of partying, he flunked out. He worked in a state mental hospital for two years, entered the U.S. Navy for four years, and when he returned home, he attended college for four years in psychology, sociology, and social work, got married, and worked in social work until 1982.

Then came his third round at college.

“I got interested in intellectual challenges again, and got my degree,” in computer science, and a minor in the School of Business, working for Fingerhut Inc., in information services, data warehousing and database management systems.

But he still wasn’t finished learning. As he began auditing classes, he realized his math knowledge was limited, so he took math classes, trying to understand what had escaped him before. He was required to take St. Cloud State University beginner math classes, Math 070, “Basic Mathematical Concepts,” and Math 072, “Intermediate Algebra.”

“I got through the classes, but I still didn’t really understand the advanced mathematics that well.” But taking analytic classes, and his memory of having enjoyed a statistics class during his second sojourn in college, sparked an intellectual fire.

“I didn’t know much about philosophy, so I took the first two sections of the history of philosophy, and found that I liked it.”

But he didn’t stop there. He audited a class called “Moral Problems,” and one in “Elementary Logic.” “That was a cool and fun class,” he said.

College classes can be audited free, with the student participating as normal, but not getting college credit, unless the auditor paid for it.

“College teachers are fine with it. In one class I took all the tests, and the teacher graded them for me, so I knew if I had taken it for credit I would have passed. In other classes I decided not to take the tests, because they would cause too much stress, and I’m about not making stress for myself.”

But he always showed up, participated, asked and answered questions, and did the homework. But he didn’t pay for the credits.

“I thought I wouldn’t gain anything for getting credits, or not getting credits. It seems I have a strange urge to know and understand.”

A New World

Bruce’s auditing experiences put him into a new world. He decided to take an English writing class because he had always clammed up when he had to write.

“I’d freak out and get behind and put it off and put it off, and all of a sudden, I’m trying to do three weeks of work in two days, and not getting anywhere. By that time the stress level is too high.”

The instructor wanted a lot of participation, and in that class, Bruce realized he was not on the same wavelength as those 18-20 year olds when they were asked to do a paper on Kanye West, the singer.

Only Bruce didn’t know who he was.

“I had no idea, so I raised my hand and asked who Kanye West was, and the whole room burst out in unbelievable gasps.”

Another time the class was discussing “memes.” Bruce had read evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the developer of the idea of memes, or replicated genes that were only cultural.

“But those weren’t the memes they were talking about, so again I didn‘t have a clue.”

The memes of the young people involved an Internet world type of joke with a picture with wording that showed opposition or being out of sync or silly. “So that’s what they were talking about. So they had to educate me on what was going on.”

In small discussion groups, students would talk about things that were important in their lives.

“They were always working with their cell phones. One day I said, ‘You’ve got that small computer in your hand, and the first digital computer called Eniac was only invented two years before I was born, and took up a whole room.” However, they didn’t seem impressed.

“So even though I still clam up when I think of writing, it was fun for me. That class was different than most because it was more interpersonal, where math classes are mostly lecturing, while philosophy can have some discussion. Sometimes I can’t understand the philosophy, so I have to really work at it until I can kind of get it. But what happens when you get older, is that a week later you can’t remember it.”

Nothing was hard about auditing the classes, Bruce said. “The hardest part is finding a reasonable life outside of doing that. I get complaints (from my wife) that the studying takes up too much of my time. Math classes are a lot of hours because you have to work a lot of problems to get the concept and that takes time. But it depends on the particular class how much study time will be needed.”

Classes vary between three and five hours in the classroom per week during the school year. “Labs take longer, but I’m not taking any of those.”

Bruce Rowan, of St. Cloud, has been taking a variety of classes at St. Cloud State University in his retirement. He is not taking them for credits, but for the knowledge and experience. Photo by Bill Vossler

Reasons Why

Why is he doing it? “Partly because I feel profoundly ignorant and would like to know more. Another reason is that I am trying to make up for the screwing around that I did earlier in my life. Now my everyday living is pretty much the same, though I think about things differently.”

He was also influenced by his parents.

“My dad graduated from high school, and that was it. But my mom got a two-year teaching degree out of high school, and when I was in high school, she went back to college to get her four-year degree. She always said that education was really important, and you should work at that and do that.”

Different Strokes

Bruce said in jest that his wife, Fran, thinks he’s crazy.

“My kids roll their eyes and say, ‘Dad’s at it again.’ Friends say, ‘That’s interesting.’ I don’t think I’ve ever had any negative reactions, though maybe some rolling of eyes.”

He said he occasionally runs into other older students at St. Cloud State. “One woman with a walker was actually working for a degree.”

Bruce isn’t going to quit anytime soon. “This fall I’m signed up for a class on epistemology, or the study of knowledge: what do we know, and how do we know for sure that we know it. I take one class at a time. I tried taking two during the same semester, but that was just too much.”

He prefers morning classes, as he feels his brain is sharper during that period. And with a weekly commitment on Wednesday, he prefers classes on Tuesdays and/or Thursdays, as weekends of Friday through Monday he and his wife are often gone.

“I discovered now that I like doing that stuff. I like studying, because it’s structured, and that structure helps me. I wish I had had this desire when I was 15-30 years old. Things would have worked out better, but I didn’t.”

The most fun for Bruce in taking these classes as an older learner is mastering ideas. “You have to work at it, and sometimes it’s easier than other times. I like being presented with new ideas. If you’re intellectually curious, doing this is a wonderful opportunity. My advice to others who might want to do it, is to just do it. It doesn’t cost anything, except for books, and if it’s too much for you, you can drop out. You’re under no obligation. So far I haven’t taken any science classes, but my intent is to start doing that too. So I don’t want to croak anytime soon,” the 70 year old laughed, “because I’m having too much fun.”