In 2012, Berry Liberman found herself seated next to Alain de Botton at dinner. Unsurprisingly, they clicked. Berry, together with her husband Danny Almagor, is co-founder of Small Giants, a social enterprise corporation that creates and supports businesses with strong mandates to further social equity and environmental sustainability. Berry is also the publisher and editor of Dumbo Feather, a quarterly magazine featuring extraordinary people addressing their individual passions and searches for meaning. Alain is a well-known philosopher, writer and co-founder (with Sophie Howarth) of The School of Life in London. The School of Life is concerned with the question of how to live wisely and well. To this end, it offers programmes and services that aim to provoke thinking about the questions that bedevil everyday life, such as how to be creative, how to realise your potential and how to make a difference. Over dinner, the congruity of Berry and Alain’s ideas gave rise to the idea of a Melbourne outpost of The School of Life.
The School of Life Melbourne was officially opened on January 26 (Australia Day) with a sustainable feast hosted by wholefood advocate Rohan Anderson. Housed in a warehouse shell artfully re-purposed by CoDesign Studio, the School is also home to a bookstore and to a café housed in an Airstream trailer. On the summer morning of my first visit to the School, the Breakfast Club is meeting around a large table set up in the courtyard. Students waiting for class mill around the Airstream and browse the bookshop. A sign – FREE – is propped on an Esky cooler filled with icy popsicles. I’m there to meet Estelle Tang, the School’s resident bibliotherapist.
How would you describe your relationship to reading? This is the first question we address. For fifty minutes (the traditional therapeutic hour) we discuss books I’ve loved and hated, childhood reading experiences, the kinds of writing I admire and reasons I read. At the end of the hour, Estelle gives me an immediate prescription (The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.) A few days later, she emails me a detailed prescription of eight books to resonate with my current circumstances and ambitions. The service (also available in London and New York, and everywhere by Skype) is both playful and brilliantly perceptive. The bibliotherapist combines psychotherapy’s self-revelations with the cold reading skills of the soothsayer and the brusqueness of a harried general practitioner.
My next experience at the School is an evening class: How To Have Better Conversations, led by Sofija Stefanovic. I’m ashamed to say that while everyone else was conversing at what seemed to me already high levels, I was the one studiously browsing the bookshop while waiting for the class to start, avoiding eye contact at all cost – turns out I much prefer pursuing a conversation than being pursued. Using a syllabus originally developed by cultural thinker Roman Krznaric, Sofija led the group of twenty-five students through a potted history of conversational techniques (from the 18th century to the present) and exercises designed to question assumptions and take risks in how we relate and converse with others. I could not leave quick enough for fear of conversation with strangers, but loved the class in theory, and did, after all that, have a lovely conversation with a fellow student as we both waited at the tram stop after.
The School also exists beyond the walls of its Collingwood headquarters. On Sunday, 3 February, The School of Life’s first Secular Sermon in Melbourne was declaimed from the raised invigilation platform in the centre of the State Library of Victoria’s usually silent domed Reading Room. David Woods, a PhD in comedy, delivered his sermon On Humour to the congregation, asking us to consider the four “humours” of comedy (the toxic, sentimental, functional and soulful.) There was singing (We love to laugh Ha Ha Ha Ha!) and a frozen yogurt van out on the library’s forecourt after the service. Upcoming Secular Sermons (curated by Stephen Armstrong) include Christine Kenneally On Lying, Andrea Durbach On Vengeance, and Craig Sherborne On Being Ordinary.
I ask Damon Young, philosopher and one of the School’s founding faculty, what sets The School of Life apart from other institutions teaching philosophy. He says, “It takes the best of the university – that is, the big ideas – and then combines them with the intimate realm of people’s lives, about love or anxiety or travel or gardening. It has a very strong practical focus and also a domestic focus which really appeals.” He hopes that the experiential nature of the School might encourage students to make further investigations, and that rather than existing in opposition to the traditional academy, there might be exchange back and forth between the two: “To take that academic expertise: the abstractions, the precision, the sense of history of ideas and to make it helpful.”
Life is a laboratory, Damon suggests. The School of Life provides a framework that highlights the improvisational, experimental nature of existence. Estelle Tang deftly avoids my dumb-headed question about the meaning of life by offering a quote from Lydia Davis that could easily read as a somewhat roundabout mission statement for The School of Life: “…all the answers together may add up to the right one if there is such a thing as a right answer to a question like that.” A more pressing question is that of the School’s future. Presently, The School only exists for this summer’s ten-week term. The popularity of its workshops, services and events suggest there’s both the desire and need for The School of Life in Melbourne – I will be watching with great interest to see how its next incarnation unfolds.