Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Elderhostel launches its first programmes 

            The year is 1975 and seniors are on campus - many of them for the first time!  They can be found laughing in the dining halls or in classrooms deep in animated discussions about such things as local history or the psychology of aging.  How did they get here, and what has attracted them?

Elderhostel is the reason for this phenomenon and it is the culmination of the vision of two energetic, extraordinary Americans, Martin Knowlton, a former teacher and social activist, and David Bianco, a university administrator.  This vision is based on the notion that seniors are fully capable of ongoing learning and of continuing to contribute to their communities. (Mills, 1993)

            Today, Elderhostel continues to be non-profit, and is the world’s largest educational and travel organization for adults aged 55 and over.  It currently offers more than 11,000 programmes a year in more than 100 countries to 250,000 seniors.  Programmes are diverse, but each has the following in common: an educational component; room and board costs which are less than those of other travel tours; a warm sense of camaraderie cultivated by the leaders as well as a large group of loyal, return participants; and the integration of classroom learning with field trip experience.  Programmes include such things as exploring the ecology of Puget Sound, while others include an active component such as hiking or cycling.  Still other programmes consist of  hands-on community experiences such as tutoring school children or building affordable housing.  In addition to these offerings, there are intergenerational programmes which pair seniors with their grandchildren to study such things as dinosaurs.  Those seniors who have embraced technology can also access a wide array of information from Elderhostel’s on-line student learning centre. (Elderhostel Website, 200l)

            How did Elderhostel begin and what has contributed to its success?  The story goes that after a four year backpacking trip through Europe staying in youth hostels, Martin Knowlton, then in his 50’s, was greatly impressed with the hostel system which allowed youth to broaden their perspectives through inexpensive travel.  He was also impressed with his observations of Scandinavian folk schools, where seniors teach age-old traditions to the younger generation.  He wondered why American seniors weren’t more engaged in their communities in this way.  

            After returning home, with his friend and former colleague David Bianco, he conceived the idea of residential, inexpensive programmes connected to college campuses where seniors would have access to serious academic courses.  They conceived of an “age segregated programme with an age-irrelevant curriculum.” (1993:155).  Programming was to be organized around liberal arts and humanities courses, not around such traditional senior offerings as health care or will preparation.  They wanted to steer away from programmes that drew attention to illness and limitation and to focus on programming which cultivated competence and engagement in community life. (Mills, 1993). 

            David Bianco was able to use his university connections to interest several colleges in launching this programming during the summer months when campuses are dormant or underutilized.  This, combined with extensive proposal writing, networking and fundraising by both partners, saw the first Elderhostel programme launched in the summer of 1975. That summer, between mid June and mid August, 3 one-week mini-courses were offered at each of 5 participating New Hampshire colleges.  During each week, three courses were offered; an oral history seminar where seniors were encouraged to share their experiences with each other; a local history course based on the area where the college was situated; and an elective course that each campus was free to select.  

            Elective courses included such topics as “The Psychology of Aging,” and “Avocation in the Arts: A Survey.”   The first sessions were sparsely attended, but word of mouth throughout the summer resulted in more and more interest by the final sessions.  By the end of the summer, 220 seniors had attended programmes, and all of them planned to return the following summer. The following summer saw 21 colleges in 6 states offer 69 programme weeks to 2000 participants. (Mills, 1993)

            Why all the success?  Patricia Cross, a researcher in Adult Education, explains Elderhostel’s success in the following way:  “Elderhostel offers an atmosphere of friendly conviviality with interesting people from all over the country and it is the total experience, rather than the classes per se which are the primary attraction.”  She goes on  to say that, “Elderhostel is a constructive response to aging which affords elders the opportunity to expand their horizons, have fun and find a place to belong. (1993:174).   And in the founders’ own words, “ we have more seniors, living longer and in better health with greater potential to make a contribution to their society.” (1993:171). Elderhostel “stimulates the idea that seniors are not pinned into a framework where society seems to thrust them, but can step out and become part of, even creators of, new frameworks….”(1993:36).

 The concept of senior learning was not new in 1975.  In 1965, the UNESCO International Committee for the Advancement of Adult Education had already endorsed the concept of “life long education,”  and the Pre-retirement Education Movement in the 1950’s and 60’s had planted the idea of learning in later life as it prepared older adults for retirement.  (2000, Glendenning).  Today, Elderhostel is part of the Elderhostel Institute Network which partners itself with the Institutes for Learning in Retirement.  The Institutes for Learning in Retirement evolved from the Institute for Retired Professionals which was started in 1962 by a group of retired American public school teachers. (Elderhostel website, 2000).  Though both Elderhostel and The Institutes for Learning in Retirement are administered by a central body, the Institutes differ from Elderhostel in that seniors not only participants in programming, but play an active role in its development and execution as well advocacy for seniors.   There are currently 220 different Institutes for Learning in Retirement in North America, and Elderhostel has been instrumental in this growth (Elderhostel website, 2000).

 The overwhelming response of seniors to Elderhostel and to other senior learning programmes such as the Institutes for Learning in Retirement, confirms the need for such opportunities. (Mills, 1993).  Though thrilled with its success, Knowlton and Bianco remain concerned that most Elderhostel participants tend to come from the more advantaged groups of society.  The challenge remains to reduce the barriers, financial and otherwise, that would restrict any senior from participating in these enriching opportunities. (Mills, 1993).


1) Elderhostel Website (2000) [online]. Available:

2) Glendenning F. (2000). Teaching and Learning in Later Life.   Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

3) Mills S.E. (1993). The Story of Elderhostel, Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Prepared by Katherine Salisbury (OISE/UT)

November 2001

Citation: Salisbury, Katherine (2001). 1975: Elderhostel launches its first programmes. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  (date accessed).

For another interesting vignette on the history of Elderhostel, please see:

Vanek, Norman A. (2001). 1975: Elderhostel launches first program. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available: .

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