The morning after the United States launched a missile strike on a Syrian airbase, only hours after Justice Neil Gorsuch was confirmed to the Supreme Court, nearly 30 Los Altos seniors packed a classroom at Hillview Community Center.
The Foreign Affairs class had not yet begun, but the room was alive with chatter: Did you hear about the terror attack in Sweden? What will the filibuster-killing "nuclear option" mean for the future of Senate collegiality?
Transliterated Russian sprawled across the chalkboard, outlining the hacking efforts of the Russian security forces. Handouts depicted the striking range of North Korean intercontinental missiles. Attendees sipped coffee from the Senior Program lounge. One member wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a screenprint of a grandchild’s face.
Instructor Jack Raymond brought the room to order with the bang of a makeshift gavel: an oversized wooden spoon. It was time to begin.
Meeting weekly for the past 20 years, the Foreign Affairs class offered through the Los Altos Senior Program is the site of informed, highly opinionated discussions of critical global issues. Students range widely in age: Veteran attendees have been members since the program’s inception, while a member in his 80s would be considered quite the rookie.
"The students are a totally amazing group," Raymond said.
Members hail from the United Kingdom, Germany, India, the Czech Republic and beyond. In the room at any given time, one might expect retired teachers, bankers, businesspersons, nuclear engineers, military officers and experts on everything from world religions to pollution.
The group has included a NASA metallurgist, a friend of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and an engineer who worked on the design of the power plant fueling America’s first nuclear submarine, under then-Naval Lt. Jimmy Carter. A discussion of modern Predator drones included a student whose first job was field-testing munitions for the earliest drones at Aerojet.
Rick Coccaro, a Foreign Affairs student for the past few years, said class members are well educated, liberal - and all the better for its attendees’ diverse life experiences.
"It’s not a bunch of young kids who don’t know anything about the world," Coccaro said. "Most everyone has traveled a lot. And it shows."
Foreign Affairs’ sister class, Current Events, meets regularly at the Grant Park Community Center to discuss domestic issues. Yet, as several Foreign Affairs students admitted, those lines can become rather blurry in this cordial but outspoken crowd, who see U.S. politics and global affairs as interconnected.
Raymond, who introduced himself with the words, "I can talk to you in three or four languages, but probably you’d prefer English," offers the perspective of a long career in military intelligence and the accompanying world travel. In one breath, he may describe the view from 30,000 feet above Hiroshima years after World War II, and in the next slyly decline to disclose classified details from his intelligence years.
"I’ve been in and out of this racket since 1948," Raymond said regarding the media image of intelligence agencies. "It’s not James Bond. Most of it’s pretty dull. It’s not pretty girls. It’s not wrestling sharks. You’re watching for patterns. Eventually you see an anomaly, and that’s a red flag."
In a class whose most senior members were born prior to the Great Depression, one might reasonably expect a low-tech approach. Yet here in the heart of Silicon Valley, this would be a severe underestimation of the Foreign Affairs crowd, who run a thriving email discussion list between classes and whose discussions have encompassed emerging machine-learning technology and the dark web.
The draw of the class goes beyond the intellectual, according to Coccaro. Many members have become close friends, warding off the potential isolation of retirement. Moreover, he said, the diversity of viewpoints explored in Foreign Affairs keeps students’ opinions from growing rigid.
A former clinical psychologist, Coccaro recalled attending a racial healing session at a mosque in Florida years ago, and how struck he had been by the experience of hearing the imam’s perspective.
"It was a good point of view to see what their problems were," he said. "As I tell people, everyone is implicitly biased. It’s part of our culture. It’s important to be aware of it and not be ashamed of it, not try to cover it up. Not let it hurt anyone else."
Raymond, who was a member of the class before inheriting his role from longtime instructor Chatham Forbes, who passed away last year, added that because many students are widows or widowers, "there’s a lot of camaraderie" arising from their common bond.
For more information on the Los Altos Senior Program, visit losaltosca.gov/recreation/page/senior-program. ❀