Three things are forbidden at UCLA Extension's Plato Society: organ concerts, discussing grandchildren and comparing aches and pains.
But most other topics fall within the realm of the Perpetual Learning and Teaching Organization, where 275 retired and semi-retired business, professional and creative people study for the pure pleasure of it.
Society members range in age from their 50s to their early 90s. Growing up in the Depression, some did not finish college or even high school, and this makes the group a varied one. It is composed of, among others, doctors, lawyers, business executives, a rare-book dealer, a psychiatrist, a retired farmer, two violinists, a retired professional photographer, a number of academics and several social workers.
An older person often "has that awful feeling you're not ready for a rocking chair, you still want to stay in the mainstream," said Gertrude Kern, 78, who was a radio show hostess, executive assistant and longtime peace activist before joining the organization.
A Place in the Mainstream
"The Plato Society gives you an opportunity to do that," Kern said.
Each month the society schedules one or two colloquia off-campus to which an outside expert is invited to speak on, for example, "The Anatomy of Terrorism" or "The Theater of the Future: Can Good Theater Be Performed in Los Angeles?"
The society's main focus, however, is on weekly study classes at UCLA Extension in Westwood. There is assigned reading, and each week a different class member presents a paper. Study topics range from "The Legacy of Freud" and "The Life and Times of Montaigne" to "The Ethnic Family in Our World" and "The Labor Movement in the U.S. and Europe."
On a recent morning, 12 Plato Society members summed up their 14-week study of "The History of Peace and Related Treaties." References abounded to World Wars I and II, Salt I and II, "Star Wars," Libya and Pakistan, the tax reform bill, Afghanistan and Nicaragua. Discussion never faltered.
Participants expressed opposing views on whether mankind would annihilate itself in nuclear war. Course coordinator Charles Macbeth, 71, a retired aerospace executive, clarified a point, cited a column from the Wall Street Journal, and finally called on two previously silent members for their opinions.
"This course stimulates me," Macbeth said after class. "I'm struck by the concept of societal mechanics resulting in peace treaties--it's helped me become less of a cynic . . . My only problem is wondering how to communicate what I've learned with a 9-year-old boy, or people living on the Eastside, or in other countries."
Self-governing and financially independent, the Plato Society has become so popular since its founding in 1980 that applicants must sign a waiting list. Dues are $325 a year, but scholarships are available after one year's membership.
Applicants must fill out a form and be interviewed by a membership committee. "They have to be intellectually curious to do the kind of reading and research that contributes to healthy discussion," said Ray Buckley, society president.
Almost one-third of the members serve on 17 committees that run everything from the curriculum and colloquia to brown-bag lunch meetings that this year featured speakers on "Haydn Revisited," "Negotiating in Peking" and "The Salem Witch Trials."
One member, 84-year-old Sam Jaffe, credits the society with nearly saving his life.
Jaffe, who rose from being an office boy at Paramount Pictures to become a film producer and agent to stars like Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March, retired 25 years ago. When he moved back to Los Angeles from London, he said he was bored and nearly desperate--until he found the Plato Society.
"I didn't want to be a celebrity, I wanted to be one of the many. I didn't want to talk about the past, I wanted to learn about from now on . . . at Plato, no one talks about their bonds or money. We talk about worldly events and interesting things that affect our lives. People are warm and friendly. I've made a pool of friends I can call up and go to lunch with," said Jaffe, who has recruited four entertainment industry friends to join the Plato Society.
When it was determined Jaffe had a cancerous tumor in his neck, "instead of sitting and moping and depressing," he continued attending Plato meetings to "forget my problems and anxieties and get involved in amiable discussion. It was a big release," Jaffe said, adding that medical treatment for the tumor has been successful.
As befits a group whose members were almost professionally hyperactive before retirement, the Plato Society also is involved in some projects in the world at large. A six-member panel of members recently critiqued a UCLA proposal to utilize university resources to aid industry and the government in cleaning up hazardous waste.