Ben Franklin Circles as Lifelong Learning 

Diane Senerth

Diane Hosts a Ben Franklin Circle at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Delaware. 

Although Ben Franklin was a young man of 21 when he started the Junto, he may have been ahead of his time. It is a bit unusual for young people to have the maturity and experience to value a virtuous life. That is often the purview of those whose life experiences have brought them to a place where they appreciate virtue in themselves and others. That is why, when I read about Ben Franklin Circles in The New Yorker magazine, my first thought of a community where I could start a Circle was the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). Osher Lifelong Learning Institute is an academic cooperative for adults 50 and over to enjoy classes, teach, exchange ideas, and travel together. Instructors teach subjects they love to students who are there for the love of learning.


I had been a member of OLLI at the University of Delaware (Wilmington Campus) for a few years. I had enjoyed taking classes in literature, history, genealogy and even learned to play the ukulele. I had come to know so many wonderful people who exhibited a vibrant curiosity about learning new things, others who were willing to share their expertise, and many who exhibited an inspiring joy in living a full life as they age.


I was uncertain how the community would respond to the opportunity to participate in a Ben Franklin Circle, but I decided to enter it into the catalog of courses in the fall of 2019. It joined an illustrious list of options (over 250 classes and activities). I was overwhelmed that 30 people signed up to join our inaugural circle and a bit concerned about how to manage such a large group.  I need not have worried. After the first class, when some of the enrollees realized that I was not a Ben Franklin expert and that we would not be discussing his role as a founding father, the class whittled down to a manageable number.


We met monthly and began with the virtue of Humility – which Ben Franklin identified as the gateway virtue.  That first meeting was eye-opening. I realized as soon as the discussion began that we had so much wisdom and experience in the room. Members brought their professional knowledge, parenting and grandparenting expertise, and lifetimes of challenges and successes. These were people who were able to reflect on all of life’s lessons and who were willing to share their journey with others. And perhaps most impressive, these were people who were still willing to travel farther along on the path. As we discussed Humility, one lifelong executive reflected on how little opportunity he had to be humble in his career. He committed to listening more and talking less in the month to come. Later, when we were discussing Temperance, a member made a commitment to encourage this virtue in her grandchildren by modeling delayed gratification rather than immediate gratification. And, our discussion of Silence uncovered many deep feelings about solitude.


It has been truly moving to be in a room of talented, intelligent and wise people who are willing to recognize that self-improvement is a lifelong endeavor. As we age, there can be a tendency to believe that we have become who we will always be. It is inspiring to think that we are still capable of becoming better. Ben Franklin Circles offers a framework for living a more virtuous life – one that has been fully embraced by my OLLI community.


If you are a member of a lifelong learning community, I encourage you to share the Ben Franklin Circle experience with your fellow learners. As I tell my group, I am not the teacher, nor am I the leader. I am the facilitator. The Ben Franklin Circle website provides ample guidance for group facilitators and I have found much support in the room as we learn together. Facilitating has given me the opportunity to practice the virtues we have worked on so far. I have deepened my humility, been temperate in my expectations, and created the silence into which poured the wisdom of others. I am grateful for the experience!


Diane Senerth has had a variety of professional and volunteer experiences that have sparked her interest in personal growth and civic engagement. She taught Spanish at the College of New Jersey, wrote a Spanish-English dictionary, and served as the Executive Director of a not-for-profit education foundation. Diane currently works for Educational Testing Service and pursues a variety of hobbies including quilting and playing the ukulele. She begin her OLLI Ben Franklin Circle in September, 2019.



“If you are a member of a lifelong learning community, I encourage you to share the Ben Franklin Circle experience with your fellow learners.”



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