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A Visit to The School of Life

Apr 2, 2013

by Carolyn Fraser

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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.

David Michael

The book shop at 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.

David Michael

The bookshelf at The School of Life.

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 LyingAndrea Durbach On Vengeance, and Craig Sherborne On Being Ordinary.

David Michael

The School of Life aphorisms.

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.

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3 Featured Comments

  • aritalucke

    Arita from TheBombshellBowtique said 3 years ago Featured

    I love the movement of people rethinking the traditional "school" and this is one that is especially exciting. The topics that this school covers seems relevant to every day life, no matter what your occupation, which is awesome. I wish there was one here in LA!

  • catchaleaf

    eva andrews from catchaleaf said 3 years ago Featured

    Interesting and thought provoking! I have always felt that philosophy and art are closely linked by posing the really pertinent questions in life, its purpose, its meaning . . . .

  • vansero

    Vanessa Pesch from DabOfPaint said 3 years ago Featured

    As a philosophy major, and de Botton fan, I loved this feature! Studying philosophy at university was very clinical and abstract, and I wished it had been more relevant to life. Definitely plan to make a trip to one of these schools! They sound exactly like what philosophy should be: examining life, and applying it to how you live.

103 comments

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie said 3 years ago

    Um, where do I sign up ;) What a great concept for a school!

  • EdelweissPost

    Patrick from EdelweissPost said 3 years ago

    'How to live a good life?" is a question that will never fully be answered, but should never stop being asked. Very thought-provoking post~

  • CharmingShopLove

    Marissa Howes from CharmingShopLove said 3 years ago

    Wow! Such a great concept!

  • NirvanaRoad

    Lisa from NirvanaRoad said 3 years ago

    Very cool concept!

  • HairAccents

    Charm Accents from CharmAccents said 3 years ago

    A totally cool concept that I hope catches on worldwide. I was totally thrilled to see all the brightly colored tables and chairs in the photo, too. A perhaps silly piece of conversation might be, who painted all those chairs and tables the pretty colors and why, but it also might awaken in anyone the positive impact color has on all of us.

  • BozenaWojtaszek

    Bozena Wojtaszek from BozenaWojtaszek said 3 years ago

    London and Melbourne - what about the rest of us? :) Great post!

  • AmityUK Admin

    Amity from AmityUK said 3 years ago

    Whoa, I will be visiting the London school!

  • opendoorstudio

    Martha Layton Smith from opendoorstudio said 3 years ago

    a wonderful read. I think we should all attend!

  • IlluminatedPerfume

    Roxana from IlluminatedPerfume said 3 years ago

    Thumbs up, so awesome!

  • emwi

    Emily Wirt from emwi said 3 years ago

    What a great idea! I would love to go that school. This is a really neat story. Thanks for sharing!

  • bedouin

    Nicole from bedouin said 3 years ago

    Terrific post ~ I think philosophy plays a great role in our daily lives. The photo's are uplifting, the colors cheerful and concept positive.

  • valeriephoto

    Valerie from valeriestitchery said 3 years ago

    Really interesting, though I was surprised to read that Carolyn fled the Conversation lecture for fear of talking to strangers!

  • TouchTheMoon

    Eleni from TouchTheMoon said 3 years ago

    I loved the aphorisms!

  • aritalucke

    Arita from TheBombshellBowtique said 3 years ago Featured

    I love the movement of people rethinking the traditional "school" and this is one that is especially exciting. The topics that this school covers seems relevant to every day life, no matter what your occupation, which is awesome. I wish there was one here in LA!

  • catchaleaf

    eva andrews from catchaleaf said 3 years ago Featured

    Interesting and thought provoking! I have always felt that philosophy and art are closely linked by posing the really pertinent questions in life, its purpose, its meaning . . . .

  • OuterKnits

    OuterKnits from OuterKnits said 3 years ago

    What a great idea!

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage from LivingVintage said 3 years ago

    Fabulous!

  • dragonhouseofyuen

    Annette from TheLeveretsNest said 3 years ago

    very interesting, I hope everyone finds what they are looking for if they go there (as I am sure that it will attract those who wish to 'find out more about themselves') and I laughed out loud at those David Michael aphorisms - hilarious!

  • lmouer

    Lynsey from lmouer said 3 years ago

    What an interesting school. I love the ideas it looks to inspire in people. I wish there was one here! Thank you for sharing!

  • DistrictUpCycle

    District UpCycle from DistrictUpCycle said 3 years ago

    so awesome! the world needs more thinkers! so when is the US school of life opening?!

  • AnnaKiper

    Anna from ParisDecorPrints said 3 years ago

    Wonderful! I also would love to go that school! :)

  • H88255

    H88255 from HillarysSuperfoods said 3 years ago

    What a wonderful story!

  • knitsbycaitlin

    Caitlin Edge from knitsbycaitlin said 3 years ago

    Lovely.

  • ikabags

    IKA PARIS from ikabags said 3 years ago

    What a great idea!

  • CafePrimrose

    Amanda Gynther from CafePrimrose said 3 years ago

    great article! No mention of Fox News in this one! That always makes me happy. :) Thank you for another lovely article Etsy.

  • ShabbyNChic

    ShabbyNChic from ShabbyNChic said 3 years ago

    Thank you for sharing this story. It is so nice to know that places like this exist, even if I may never see it.

  • GeorgieGirlLLC

    D George from GeorgieGirlLLC said 3 years ago

    I may be wrong, but it seems like a book club with more people and it is not a club at all. Just many people from different backgrounds getting together having conversations without any strings attached. This is a really nice concept. We need more of these schools to pop up.

  • glynniskillen

    Diane and Glynnis from DiGiJewels said 3 years ago

    I never knew this school existed. Thank you for introducing me to it and its way of thinking. I especially like the The School of Life aphorisms. Need to print some up and put them around my house! How wonderful for you to have a "tailored for you" book list! How fun!

  • AtomicAttic

    Miles and Aimee Harrison from AtomicAttic said 3 years ago

    "secret to a good life is knowing when you're through"

  • jessgreenleaf

    Jess Greenleaf from GREENLEAFblueberry said 3 years ago

    It's about time a school sounded useful. This sounds great. And bibliotherapy- hah, love it.

  • Fullerjewelry

    Jane Fuller from Hoopsetc said 3 years ago

    Great concept. Not sure that I can make the fair (unless my shop sales increase dramatically!) But, think it's great to be reminded how we can look into our own lives and make improvements...that's what this post has done for me...thanks!

  • mrsknarfocram511

    Carole M from CarolesWeddingWhimsy said 3 years ago

    Beautiful! What an excellent read this was! I liked it so much my 18 year old daughter is now reading it. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • AmandaThonMetalsmith

    Amanda Thon from AmandaThonMetalsmith said 3 years ago

    The USA is in dire need of an outpost of The School of Life. Very interesting - I'll be looking for future news of this school!

  • lovelygifts

    Linda from lovelygifts said 3 years ago

    Interesting post!

  • FeverDoor

    Echo from FeverDoor said 3 years ago

    I'd love to see a school with this kind of central focus for children... Then I might consider procreating one day! The world needs more of this.

  • pattydiamond1

    Patty Diamond said 3 years ago

    Agreed, we need this here in the USA. I would love to sign up. I can feel it would be a great experience and one is never too old. In fact, a little maturity just means you have more ideas and experience to share. Enjoyed reading all about it. This would be in the top three of my bucket list.

  • teazel

    Linny from teazel said 3 years ago

    wow...is all I can say...

  • EclecticForest

    Steven Brincat from EclecticForest said 3 years ago

    Fascinating! And how ironic for me that I've had such a bookish themed day visiting several area bookshops ( old used ones with so much character! ) and shipped off a package to Australia... wish I could have gone with it! Time for a visit to Melbourne!

  • minipotterybyanita

    minipotterybyanita from potterybyAnita said 3 years ago

    Great article! Love the real-life quotes! I was raised at the "School of Hard Knocks," myself! LOL! But, boy, you sure don't forget your lessons! ♥♥♥

  • ebkriley

    EBK Riley from DeeAndFee said 3 years ago

    I love this! I am a philosopher by training (and vocation) and I am heartily in favor of any person, organization or place that encourages people to think, to question, to ponder, to analyze and draw conclusions. It is practice we all need. I have long been a fan of de Botton's-- just finished his book on work this week. Thank you for bringing him to the Etsy table!

  • burcuyurtolu

    Burcu Yurtoglu from HAMMAM34 said 3 years ago

    Please, please, please! We need one School of life in Amsterdam, the Netherlands! I would like to sign up if Alain de Botton will do some teaching...

  • KMalinka

    Natalia from KMalinkaVintage said 3 years ago

    Awesome article!

  • fantasiabridalveils

    kathy johnson from DIYBridalSupplies said 3 years ago

    Lovely article and great quotes!

  • caitlinborck

    Caitlin Borck from TheSprightlyHound said 3 years ago

    What a great idea! Congrats on getting it off the ground :) I'm always trying re-evaluate how I live my life and make changes towards happiness and a feeling of usefulness!

  • kathyjohnson3

    Kathy Johnson from kathyjohnson3 said 3 years ago

    Awesome idea! When I was in school we had to learn good behavior and manners, which I believe is the foundation for a good life. Thanks for sharing this wonderful article!

  • aressa

    aressa from OriginalBridalHanger said 3 years ago

    Sounds like a new place....What a wonderful learning atmosphere....Thanks for sharing!

  • patspottery

    Pat Parker from PatsPottery said 3 years ago

    My brain is buzzing:>)

  • GemBlue

    Krista Young from GemBlue said 3 years ago

    Neato!

  • sandrostumpo

    Sandro Stumpo from GalleryDiModa said 3 years ago

    Very nice article. The art of thought.

  • richardlithgow

    Richard Lithgow from RichardLithgow said 3 years ago

    I'm in! Cool thinking!

  • Booop

    Jerrica Fields from booop said 3 years ago

    "How to be creative, how to realize your potential, and how to make a difference..." this school sounds like a dream come true for artists for entrepreneurs. Sign me up! I wish there was a place like this in Ohio. Thanks so much for this. I'm thoroughly inspired!

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat from mazedasastoat said 3 years ago

    Nice to know there are outposts of philosophy still going strong in today's world.

  • PinkPianos

    Hilary Hahn from PinkPianos said 3 years ago

    Great stuff! I would love to see these philosophical ideas shared at the elementary school level!

  • mattyhandmadecrafts

    Matejka Max from NattyMatty said 3 years ago

    Very creative!!!

  • CuriosityAnnies

    CuriosityAnnies from CuriosityAnnies said 3 years ago

    love this look

  • khateraahmad1

    Khatera Ahmad from Khatera9 said 3 years ago

    Congrats. Nice.

  • gboliver

    Gail Oliver from AttentionGetting said 3 years ago

    It proves that people are still looking for social learning experiences in person, not just online.

  • newhopebeading

    newhopebeading from newhopebeading said 3 years ago

    LOL the quotes... there are 2 or 3 there at least that I need to have!

  • artXchic

    Hannah M. from artXchic said 3 years ago

    what a great idea, love it!

  • JennNycee

    Jennica Jennice from JNYCJWLZ said 3 years ago

    LOVE IT!

  • TeeToters

    Willow Mayim from TeeToters said 3 years ago

    I honestly believe that the world is getting a little more positive every day. Here's another example! A little known secret to allowing it is to do what you love with integrity.

  • kpoklemba

    Katie Schmitt from PassengerSeatArt said 3 years ago

    what a brilliant idea! I am certainly going to look for these classes in NYC. Thanks for shining a light on this wonderful school!

  • EmiliaFaith

    Edie Ann from OhHoneyHush said 3 years ago

    Love the aphorisms! :)

  • stoneaddict

    Dana Evans from danaevansstudio said 3 years ago

    Wonderful, inspiring, and a breath of fresh air!

  • gossamer531

    Gossamer Tearoom from TheGossamerTearoom said 3 years ago

    This is great! I have been telling people for years that I didn't go to college, but have attended many years of lessons at The School of Life! So glad to know they actually exist! I agree completely with all that say they should be here in the States! They should be everywhere. I am hoping for continued success for these schools so that they may be open for more of the year.

  • Attractive1

    Elena Fom from Attractive1 said 3 years ago

    Very interesting! Project like this school beginnig in Kiev now.

  • buhnon

    Shantel Nielson from ThePinkRaffy said 3 years ago

    Brilliant!

  • GemsoftheNorthwest

    Doug and Colleen George from GemsoftheNorthwest said 3 years ago

    Living a good life is something we should all be striving toward. How inspiring!

  • TheresasGourmet

    Theresa Ryales from TheresasGourmet said 3 years ago

    Wonderful concept!

  • bunnyandclutch

    Megan Bustamante from BunnyandClutch said 3 years ago

    Wonderful!

  • GracefullyGirly

    Kimberlee from GracefullyGirly said 3 years ago

    That sounds fabulous! I especially love the quote about anger and watching others in it, is itself a vaccine.

  • WeddingLab

    SSW from WeddingLab said 3 years ago

    Wonderful!

  • xZOUix

    Zoui from XZOUIX said 3 years ago

    ---yeah, this is awesome! i like where the educational system is heading :)

  • harrachglass

    Carol from HarrachGlass said 3 years ago

    Looks like a great place to learn!

  • WingedWorld

    Vickie Moore from WingedWorld said 3 years ago

    What a fascinating article! I would love to have a session with the bibliotherapist!

  • CafePrimrose

    Amanda Gynther from CafePrimrose said 3 years ago

    How positively wonderful!

  • casadeboneca

    casa deboneca from casadeboneca said 3 years ago

    really awesome !

  • hkhurd

    H.K. Hurd from RuedeFlorence said 3 years ago

    I love this! So important and wonderful to know people are out there manifesting things like this. :)

  • rocksofjoy

    Jojo D from rocksofjoy said 3 years ago

    I truly hope this type of school is what my grandchildren will be attending when they are old enough to go to school. I don't have any grandchildren yet. The current school system is archaic and ridiculous. It worked 200 years ago, 100 years ago, 50 years ago. It doesn't work very well anymore.

  • FantasticaIdea

    Roberta from FantaIdea said 3 years ago

    Pity this school is not near where we live...

  • SmallkineCreations

    Amy from SmallkineCreations said 3 years ago

    Great article! Aloha. =)

  • ballandchain

    Katrina Balling from ballandchain said 3 years ago

    great post!

  • smroberds

    Shannon C. from AirplanesToZebras said 3 years ago

    Beautiful location! I love when people choose to re-purpose an old building into something new. It gives it such charm!

  • ashjax25

    Ashley Jackson from AshOlogy said 3 years ago

    As a student I have to say, this would be awesome! Nowadays, the school-systems are just so-so, no fault of the teachers or students either.... I'm just counting the days until i graduate. Come one, America! Get schools like THESE!

  • xeniademes

    Xenia Demes from RareAesthetics said 3 years ago

    I love it, it's so inspiring and creative!

  • miriammcgowan

    miriam from MizMiriam said 3 years ago

    great, hope it inspires far and wide, love your ideas

  • mygoddess

    indre from HelloMyGoddess said 3 years ago

    How I would love to attend! Thank you so much for posting this and letting us know that such initiatives exist. Hopefully our grandchildren will be able to enjoy an inspiring education, not the insipid schooling most of us had to plod through. BTW, for those interested in the topic of education, go see a recent thought provoking TED talk, winner of the TED 2013 prize: http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_build_a_school_in_the_cloud.html

  • angelshaug

    Anne Irene Angelshaug from angelshaug said 3 years ago

    Great article! Thank you :)

  • shaylen303

    Shaylen Maxwell from CustomPopPortraits said 3 years ago

    Loved this! And those bookshelves! <3

  • PinwheelStudio

    Whitney from PinwheelStudio said 3 years ago

    Fascinating!

  • BritshMaid

    Penelope Neil from StarTribeVintage said 3 years ago

    This is a very 18th century method of intellectual gathering; there were once countless books and essay as well as clubs and societies devoted to such high-brow philosophies. It's rather a hybrid between a TED talk and a series of books from the 1950s I own (and will never give up) called 'A Man's World'. In their smart indigo tweed covers are essays on everything you could ever want to know about Doing Life Properly- from dinner parties, dressing for seasons, writing a book, building a house, becoming a stock broker, handling difficult people and my favourite- what to do when a woman cries. Perhaps that could be the next class at School of Life?

  • meanjeanarts

    Jean from Meanjeanarts said 3 years ago

    What a wonderful feature! Reading about the School of Life makes me feel hopeful, as do so many of the posts on Etsy. I am not aware of anything of this nature available in Indiana where I live, but it is uplifting to know that it is happening somewhere. Perhaps the concept will spread--I'd like to think so. To quote The Preacher from Frank Herbert's Children of Dune, "Every civilization depends upon the quality of the individuals it produces. If you over-organize humans, over-legalize them, suppress their urge to greatness--they cannot work and their civilization collapses."

  • cfreimuth

    camrin freimuth from RoseRaeMaries said 3 years ago

    It makes me want a bibliotherapist!

  • divinecartomancy

    Bren from PsychicBren said 3 years ago

    This is a wonderful Idea. I love the Books, and the wood work, it draws you in. I truly wish you the Best Success Possible. Divine.

  • pulsejewellery

    Pulse Jewellery Accessories from PulseJewellery said 3 years ago

    Awesome concept. Love it.

  • FreakyPeas

    FreakyPeas from FreakyPeas said 3 years ago

    ... im feeling inadequate...

  • ESTATENOW

    VINTAGE NOW from ESTATENOW said 3 years ago

    Great stuff..

  • clgifts

    CL Gifts from CLGifts said 3 years ago

    Yes, sign us up, too! We love that specific books are be prescribed to guide you through whatever you are doing at the time. Great concept!

  • clgifts

    CL Gifts from CLGifts said 3 years ago

    PS - VERY funny aphorisms!

  • thewildplum

    Christina from TheWildPlum said 3 years ago

    Makes my heart sing!

  • vansero

    Vanessa Pesch from DabOfPaint said 3 years ago Featured

    As a philosophy major, and de Botton fan, I loved this feature! Studying philosophy at university was very clinical and abstract, and I wished it had been more relevant to life. Definitely plan to make a trip to one of these schools! They sound exactly like what philosophy should be: examining life, and applying it to how you live.

  • hmmills

    Helen Mills from 1820BagCo said 3 years ago

    Awesomeness

  • eshannon12

    Eric Shannon from BigBarkerDogBeds said 3 years ago

    Beautiful workspace.

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