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The School of Life · Plus 5 Questions with Alain de Botton


24th January, 2013
Lucy Feagins
Thursday 24th January 2013

The School of Life Airstream Cafe in Collingwood.  Photo - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files

The School of Life bookshop in Collingwood.  Photo - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files

The School of Life event and meeting space - featuring murals by Miso!  Photo - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files

The School of Life publications. Photo - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files

I am a bit excited about today's post.... I feel this particular project is so truly brilliant, and there certainly seems to be a buzzing level of anticipation in Melbourne whilst it's been taking shape over the past few months.  Of course I'm talking about The School of Life in Collingwood, which officially opens this weekend! (*note - bookings essential!)

The School of Life is the brainchild of UK based modern-day philosopher and academic, Alain de Botton.  The school is basically an informal 'university' open to the public, that teaches its students how to explore and discuss the philosophies of 'real, everyday life'.  Simply put, The School of Life offers a variety of programmes concerned with how to live wisely and well, addressing issues such as why work is often unfulfilling, why relationships can be so challenging, and what we can do to try to change the world for the better.

The first School of Life launched in London in 2008.  Alain had been looking to expand The concept beyond UK shores, and with strong ties to Australia, Melbourne seemed the perfect spot.  Partnering with local philanthropic enterprise Small Giants (the extremely clever crew who also publish Dumbo Feather magazine), Alain and his team found a local project director in Melbourne's Sara Tiefenbrun, and set about exporting their unique concept... and I have a feeling Melbournians are going to get RIGHT into it!

The School of Life Melbourne occupies an incredible disused warehouse on Peel st in Collingwood, re-configured by local design studio [co]Design studio, and scrubbed up by the immense efforts of an army of volunteers over the past few months!  The space features the open air 'Conversation Café' - housed in Dumbo Feather's amazing airstream caravan, where patrons will be presented with a 'conversation menu' alongside the usual caffeine-fuelled offerings!  There's also a bookshop, operated by Readings, specialising in self-improvement and thoughtful, philosophical tomes.

The School of Life Summer Term program commences this Saturday 26th January!   The first term includes an incredible range of classes including 'How to have better conversations', 'How to make love last' and 'How to worry less about money'.  Inaugural speakers will include film maker / comedian John Safran, and hunter / gatherer / foodie / blogger Rohan Anderson, amongst many other amazing and very wise, inspiring people!  Whilst the focus is on functional information and 'real life' relevance, there's certainly a good pinch of humour thrown in at every opportunity!  Do check out the TSOL Melbourne website for the full rundown and all booking info.

We were more than a little inquisitive about this inspired collaborative project, so we asked Alain de Botton a few questions about The School of Life, and the challenges in bringing this concept to Melbourne. -

Alain de Botton - photo by Vincent Starr
Tell us a bit about the concept behind The School of Life and what it hopes to achieve? What was the premise behind launching its first incarnation in the UK in 2008?

Before I went to university, I imagined it as an extraordinary place where you’d get a chance to escape from commercial pressures and examine the great questions of life in beautiful surroundings with fascinating people, and so become a better, wiser, more interesting person. The harsh truth is that universities nowadays see it as their job to train you either in a very specific career (like law, medicine), or to give you a grounding in arts subjects like literature or history - but for no identifiable reason, beyond the vague notion that three years studying medieval literature may be a good idea.

There’s a maddening snobbery among intellectuals about anyone who tries to write a book that could in some way be useful or enlightening to the mass of the population.  Elite opinion associates this kind of wisdom with self-indulgent therapy and Oprah Winfrey.  Doing your job properly in the eyes of most academics generally consists in writing books that sell 200 copies, never communicating with the outside world and focusing your life’s work on a tiny area like Biblical references in Byron’s later poems or the history of crop rotation in medieval Lancashire.

Outside of the sciences, modern universities have rendered themselves irrelevant to the concerns of most people. Yet the truth is, we’re all in need of knowledge geared towards wisdom and consolation.

A few years ago, I came together with a group of similarly disaffected academics, artists and writers and decided to start a new kind of university.  We plainly called it : 'The School of Life'. The place opened its doors in a modest shop and teaching space in central London near King’s Cross.

On the menu of our school, you won’t find subjects like ‘philosophy’ ‘French’ ‘History’ and ‘the Classics’. You’ll find courses in ‘Death,’ ‘Marriage’ ‘Choosing a career’ ‘Ambition’ ‘Child Rearing’ or ‘Changing your world’. Along the way, you will learn about a lot of the books and ideas that traditional universities serve up, but you are unlikely ever to get bored, you’ll make friends – and you’ll come away with a different take on the world.

There’s even a bookshop in the school which does away with the traditional categories in bookshops like fiction or history and just sells books according to particular problems. So we’ve got a shelf titled ‘For those who worry at night’ and another titled ‘How to be happy though married’. We call the shop a ‘chemist for the soul’.

It’s always tempting to stick at standing on the sidelines complaining about a problem, but it’s perhaps one better to try to make a change yourself. The School of Life is our modest attempt to alter the way that learning gets done – and to remind us that culture, if handled rightly, should actually feel entirely relevant and exciting, and always make life more manageable and interesting.

The School of Life bookshop in Collingwood.  Photo - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files
How long has The School of Life Melbourne been in development for and how did the partnership with Small Giants come about?

We started discussions three years ago, and Small Giants have been a dream to work with. They are very interested in building a sound business but they also take ethical goals seriously, in this we see eye to eye. I met up with Small Giants via mutual friends. The idea is that we provide the content for the Melbourne school, and they deliver the teaching and the physical space. So far, it's been a great partnership and all of us in London feel very lucky to have found such a good team to be involved with.

What makes Melbourne the perfect place to set up The School of Life's first international hub?

Australia is immensely interested in The School of Life in London. The Australian media covered it non-stop and even now, at least one of our students is Australian in every class we ever run (sometimes, it can be up to 50 per cent!). Australians are keen to learn and very unfussy about academic snobbery, so they love our approach to what we do. It was natural we'd open in either Melbourne or Sydney if we ever came here and in the end, what decided it was Small Giants, who are based in Melbourne.

What can visitors expect to experience at The School of Life?

The experience should be a) very social b) very interesting. By social I mean that it's a chance to get to know a new group of people in a way that you won't at a party or a bar. People open up because the subjects are personal and intriguing. What we keep finding is that people like the ideas we put forward, but they love the community.

The School of Life

See here for Melbourne summer term class info.

TSOL Readings bookstore opening hours -

Monday to Thursday - Closed
Friday -  4.00pm – 10.00pm
Saturday & Sunday - 8.00 - 5.30pm

Conversation Café opening hours -

Monday to Thursday - Closed
Friday -  4.00pm – 10.00pm
Saturday & Sunday - 8.00am - 3.00pm

The School of Life postcards - these words of wisdom are pasted all over the School!  Photo - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files

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