It’s often a dramatic, knuckle-gnawing experience. After years in the workplace, dealing with mortgages and taxes, raising kids and other mature stuff, an adult decides to begin—or finish—a college degree.

The continuing education literature is full of stories about the anxieties of these adult students: apprehension when surrounded by students younger than their own children, frustration dealing with academic bureaucracy and terror when faced with actual writing assignments, group discussions and tests, damn tests.

A movie bearing this theme is Larry Crowne (2011) with Tom Hanks (star, co-writer, producer and director) and co-starring Julia Roberts as a college professor (yeah, right). Unfortunately, despite Hanks and Roberts and the talented supporting cast, the film proved a ho-hum experience for audiences and critics. And to tell the truth, Larry Crowne is a fairly lackluster movie. However, drawing on it for what it can tell us about the transformation that occurs in adults who make the leap from “real life” to academe can be instructive, pun intended.

Out of work, out of luck

Tom Hanks plays the middle-aged titular character who gets fired from his retail job at UMart because he lacks a college education and, therefore, is un-promotable to a management position. A Navy veteran, Larry is a loyal, model employee whom we first see conscientiously picking up trash in the store’s parking lot. Larry is divorced, so he doesn’t have the benefit of an employed spouse whose income might fill in the gap while he looks for work. With no job (he searches without success), he is faced with the very real possibility that he will lose his house.

It’s an all-too-familiar tale these days.

College as a key

Larry doesn’t seem to know what to do next when his neighbor suggests that he enroll in community college and get an education. Fortunately, he lives in California, where community college is free.

Not all adult students enjoy the luxury of a tuition-free education, but the screenwriters (Hanks and Nia Vardalos) needed this convenience to make their rickety plot work. What is interesting, though, is it often does require someone else to prompt an adult to go back to school and to see education as a way to gain necessary skills to break out of the trap that economic necessity sometimes puts us in. Or put another way: an education can provide a key to a better life.

Larry Crowne movie reviewNew environment, new mentors, new balance

As in the case of other adults who return to college, once in school, Larry plunges headlong into a new community of learners. This socialization process is a hallmark of adult education. With peers who have related goals, you often become mentors of each other.

In Larry’s case, it’s a “gang” of motorbikers who seem to have stepped out of a Disney movie. Larry’s newfound college friends begin the process of transformation—on him. He is dubbed Lance Corona and given a new hairstyle and a new outfit. His home décor is even transformed.

Larry also learns the fine art of balancing his life. He gets a part-time job in a diner (he had been a “culinary specialist” in the Navy) and manages to do what so many students do with downright aplomb: work and learn.

Using what you learn

Larry’s former dream of home ownership comes to an unfortunate but unavoidable end, but he is able to use what he learns in his economics class to initiate a strategic foreclosure and prevent dire results to his credit rating. Adult learners want their college experience to be a practical one, where they will be able to apply knowledge and skills learned in the classroom in the everyday world. Larry does so, with great confidence.

Assignments that mirror experience

At semester’s end, Larry prepares his final project for speech class, a talk about his experience in the Navy. Like other adults, he draws on his own life experience and puts it to use. This is related to the previous point where adults want to use their learning in their lives. They want to inject their real-world experiences into their assignments to make the learning “more real” and more applicable to life. Unlike traditional age students, adult students see things more holistically, where learning, everyday life and work are integrated in one’s experience.

Of course, Larry’s classmates applaud his speech because he successfully did exactly what they believe should happen in the classroom: brought practical experience to the curriculum in such a way that it makes education useful.

Success in school, success in life

Larry’s A+ grade in speech class and his mastery in his economics class are simply affirmations that his transformation into a lifelong learner is complete. Of course, it also underscores the cheesy screenwriting of Hanks and Vardalos, which can only end with a neatly tied up happy ending. Adults know that’s not how things always happen. Nevertheless, Larry Crowne illustrates—albeit in a simplistic way—that education can transform lives. In the College of Liberal Studies, we see it happen every semester.

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