“We’re interested in the whole human experience and that includes sex, exercise, play as much as it includes love, death and self.” I’m talking to Kaj Löfgren at The School of Life’s Conversation Cafe. The space is warm, made with blonde wood and decorated with books, most of which are from The School of Life series or written by the school’s founder, British writer and philosopher Alain de Botton.
The School of Life runs classes that explore human concerns. In Melbourne, a faculty of 13 teachers cover topics such as How to Make Love Last, How to Be a Good Friend, How to Worry Less About Money and How to Stay Calm. If it all sounds too self-helpy, the school’s credibility is in its approach. Its program is based on ideas from philosophy, art, film and culture in general. The “How To” prefixes are, in a way, an ironic nod of the head to the more preachy style of self-help out there. “There are powerful works of culture and philosophy that we think can provide practical wisdom for people’s everyday lives,” says Löfgren.
The word, “class” is also misleading. The sessions encourage participation. And for punters to start up what in the outside world might be considered inappropriate conversations to have with total strangers. “They’re not lectures,” says Löfgren. “It’s not about answers at all. It’s about better questions.”
The School of Life has its headquarters in London where it was established by de Botton in 2008. It started in Melbourne as a pilot pop-up in Collingwood in 2013 and went gangbusters. Which wasn’t surprising to organisers. The School of Life Australia Facebook page had roughly 1000 likes before it even existed. It ran 60 programs over 10 weeks in a space that used chairs from IKEA and that, in a sweltering Melbourne summer, had no air-con. Despite the five-week rush to convert a derelict warehouse into what became a thriving hub, the space won a Melbourne Design Award. At one point there was a waiting list of 800 people for a 25-person class.
When that pop-up closed in April the team went back to the drawing board. It negotiated a licence agreement to run The School of Life in Australia permanently.
In the permanent space at the south end of Bourke Street, the wooden, undulating acoustic ceiling and hidden cupboards in the wall mean that shifting from cafe during the day into a classroom in the evening is no trouble at all. Classes are 25 people. “Which is about the number at which it stays intimate,” says Löfgren. “We’ve experimented with classes of 28 to 30 and it changes the dynamic.” It doesn’t surprise me at all that Löfgren and The School of Life have noticed this and taken it into consideration.
Melbourne was the first city to establish a school, after London. There are now active schools in Paris and Amsterdam. Rio, Sao Paulo, Belgrade and others now also have licences. “We think it’s going to be a pretty fantastic global movement of thinkers and creatives,” says Löfgren.
The faculty is made up of writers, creatives, novelists, secondary-school teachers university academics, philosophers and psychologists. The winter program starting on July 7 introduces a number of new topics and class formats. There is an Art As Therapy “tour” of the NGV, which is more of a walking exploration of human emotions framed by pieces of artwork than it is following a guide who points at art and tells you when it was painted. “It’s with an art historian who also has an art therapy background,” says Löfgren. “They will guide conversations about topics and emotions that are brought up by paintings.”
There is also a Philosophy of Exercise workshop. It’s a practical workout that consists of a five-hour jog around the city, with stops along the way. It’s about exploring the idea of exercising the whole self and trying to get past the dualism of exercise being just for the body.
Pierz Newton-John is a writer and IT programmer who worked for years as a psychotherapist. He runs a class on How To Be Alone, one that asks, How Necessary is a Relationship? and the How to Face Death session. “They’re the kinds of things you never stop learning,” he says. “But it’s interesting, even the death class, which you think would be depressing, is actually lively. Because so much of the focus is on life when you discuss death. I’ve always come away energised and switched on to life, rather than undone by the heaviness.”
The school is also introducing Philosophy Breakfast on Saturdays. The hour-long session – with 15 or so others – will be a more straight-up philosophical discussion. Less personal – for those just into the idea of philosophy.
After about 30 minutes of conversation about the virtues and different types of emotional and intellectual learning over coffee, I feel my natural (default) cynic switch back on. I ask Löfgren what The School of Life can offer people who think sitting around contemplating our first-world problems is an unnecessary luxury.
“I’m a civil engineer by training,” he says. “I’m a really rational, quite naturally cynical thinker. And when I came across the school I had a similar reaction, which was: it’s a beautiful brand, and such a beautifully framed concept. But is there really something of substance behind it?”
He was convinced when he experienced the substance for himself. “The faculty and everyone behind the school is driven to push these ideas into the world so they can be engaged with by the mainstream. Not just a small, cultural elite,” he says. “That doesn’t mean I don’t think people should have a natural cynicism. All I’d say is, I challenge people to come to a class and leave feeling the same way.
“We pride ourselves on providing entry points for everybody. It might be a Woody Allen movie, as much as it might be Plato.
“We’re tearing apart assumptions and emerging at the other end with, maybe, a couple of things you can do in your own life that will help you to look at things a bit differently.”
The School of Life’s winter program runs from July to September. Tickets are currently on sale. The School of Life is at 669 Bourke Street, Melbourne. Cafe and bookshop opening hours are Mon to Fri 8am–10pm, Sat 8am–6pm.