The Importance of Being Earnest

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The School of Life is housed in a sleek storefront on Marchmont Street in London’s Bloomsbury neighborhood. The ground-floor shop, painted in cool gray with bright yellow signage, reflects the school’s tongue-in-cheek approach to its own mission. Aphorisms are typeset on large sheets of paper and suspended in the street-facing window; a quotation from Emerson was on rotation the week that I visited. (“All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients.”) Clusters of cedar trunks rise from floor to ceiling. A carefully curated selection of books is shelved by the reader’s immediate need rather than by subject: books for those in love or for those worried about death. If you stand looking out through the window at the street, you can watch the faces of the passers-by as they try to puzzle out what kind of establishment the School of Life is. A jar of free candy bars on a front counter is popular with local children.

The school’s single classroom is downstairs in the basement—and when I use the word basement, I don’t mean to imply a dark, cement-walled room. Around the School of Life’s cellar walls runs an illustrated mural by artist Charlotte Mann that depicts the sort of cheerful cultural clutter you might find in the world’s best rec room: bookshelves crammed with art books, great novels, and DVDs of classic films; paintings by Picasso and Breugel; a guitar and a copy of Bowie’s Aladdin Sane;a soccer game on the television—all drawn in a loose, squiggly freehand. There’s no sign of the chalk-dusted desks and humming fluorescent lights typically found in a continuing-education classroom. Instead, chairs are arranged in semicircular rows. The room is softly lit; during classes, a table is set with hummus and pretzels, and the wine flows freely, symposium-style.

On a Monday evening in September, the school launched its “Work” course.

Roman Krznaric, a self-described “writer and teacher on creative thinking about the art of living and social change,” gives us colored pens and large sheets of paper and asks us each to draw a “career map.” Make yourself comfortable, he tells us, feel free to sprawl out on the carpet. The members of the class—who seem to be in their late 20s and 30s and who range from a barrister to a cheese monger—giggle nervously. Yet there we are, our pens swirling and dipping across our papers as we excitedly cast our employment histories into geographical form.

Taped onto the basement walls are quotations about work, from Thomas Carlyle and Mark Twain down the cultural high-low scale to Rosanne Barr; we break off into clusters in front of our favorites and discuss them. We watch a slide presentation on the history of work from Egyptian slavery to the rise of women in the paid economy. We sketch out our family trees, with an emphasis on the roles that choice and fate have played in our forebears’ work lives and ours, and we pair up to chat about our work histories. Krznaric—an Australian with thick, curly hair and an appealingly open, stubbly face—explains that over six weeks, we will be “trying to discover a way of working that’s more interesting, more creative, more adventurous.” In future sessions, students will take to the Bloomsbury streets to interview passers-by on their work lives; have the option of participating in a job swap with fellow classmates; and query diversely employed visitors to the course, including a hedge-fund manager and a druidic bard. The first evening’s session runs well over its two and a half hour time slot, but the students are so energized, no one seems to notice.

In one corner of the room is a plush Victorian divan, scrolled at one end, of the type that Freud used. I lie upon it the next day while Susan Elderkin leads me through a one-on-one “bibliotherapy” session. Elderkin asks me about my reading history and habits (where do I read? what books figured largely in my childhood?) and delves into personal issues that might affect my choice of reading material (what do you feel is missing from your life?) before coming up with a list of suggested titles. Elderkin, who has published two novels, was awarded a place on Granta magazine’s best of young British novelists list in 2003, and her therapeutic prescriptions lean heavily toward fiction. I admit that I’m a tough nut to crack—I’m an ardent fiction reader who once worked for the book review section of a New York newspaper. Nevertheless, she suggests some titles that I’ve heard of but haven’t read, and afterward, I head down to Foyles on Charing Cross Road to seek out Shirley Hazzard’s Transit of Venus and Helen Garner’s The Spare Room.

The list of School of Life events and programs goes on. Group meals, where perfect strangers gather to share food and practice the art of conversation at Bloomsbury’s Konstam restaurant, are scheduled for January and February. (Two meals held around Valentine’s Day have a matchmaking theme; one is for straight singles and the other is for single gay men.) A Sunday morning lecture series of “sermons,” as the school cheekily calls them, features well-known writers and artists on what Sophie Howarth, the founder and director of the School of Life, describes as “rather ungroovy virtues.” Writer Alain de Botton will speak on pessimism, popular scientist Robert Winston will extol curiosity, and Sam Roddick, founder of “erotic emporium” Coco de Mer and daughter of Body Shop entrepreneur Anita Roddick, will discuss seduction. Future holidays include a “Sky Holiday” in an observatory, led by cloud expert Gavin Pretor-Pinney, and an “Austerity Holiday,” featuring Krznaric and Sara Maitland, a writer at work on a book about silence, in Northumberland, near St. Cuthbert’s home on Lindisfarne Island. Not all of the programs are of the so-crazy-it-just-might-work variety: Good old-fashioned psychotherapy with licensed psychotherapists is available for individuals, couples, and families.

Howarth is a London native with a shock of straight hair and the energy of a Superball. For seven years, she developed educational programs at the Tate Modern—”the most dreamy job,” she says—before hatching a plan to create a space where people could meet for culture and conversation. She flirted with various concepts, including a philosophical cooking school, before settling upon “a kind of ideas store.” (“Every little girl wants to have a shop,” she says.) Friends ribbed her that she wanted to develop a “university of life.” She protested before realizing that that was indeed what she wanted to do. “And what would they teach at the University of Life?” she asks. “They’d teach how to die well, how to raise children, how to enjoy your job. Through a lot of conversations with different people, I began to think it would be better if we just had a very few subjects, and they were big subjects, and they were totally enduring. And we didn’t change them a lot, because then we could really do the research.”

The School of Life’s course programs were developed over a year and a half with the help of various experts, many of whom are now on the school’s faculty. Actors and performers were called in to help choreograph classes; picture researchers created audio-visual programs. Along the way, de Botton served as a tutelary spirit, helping to set the intellectual agenda and structure curriculum. Indeed, the school might be seen as a natural extension of de Botton’s books, which address contemporary issues using the teachings of Greek philosophers or Enlightenment thinkers. “I’m interested in how culture can inform our lives and be of assistance to us by echoing and enhancing our own dilemmas and life challenges,” de Botton says. “We feel less alone—we feel that we have thousands of years of reflection and responses to things.”

From the beginning, seducing a potentially doubtful public with good design was an important consideration. Everything about the School of Life, from the shop layout to the Web site to the stationery letterhead, is art-directed to the teeth. “I don’t see why education should always have such bad design,” says Howarth. “If it’s about communication, which it is, then communication means good fonts, inspiring graphics, strong pictures—obviously.” Howarth and de Botton were careful to build in a healthy dose of humor. “We’ve had to pedal extra hard to embed within our offering certain things to reduce British anxiety,” he says. “We are dead earnest, but in order to be earnest in this culture, you have to joke along. You have to work extra hard against an audience that can very easily think it’s pretentious or American—an insult.”

One of Howarth’s inspirations is indeed American: Dave Eggers’ 826 National, a quirky, nonprofit chain of tutoring and writing centers that fosters literacy among young people. Each branch is fronted by a kid-friendly shop. One sells pirate supplies; another, robots; another, Sasquatch paraphernalia. The School of Life, says Howarth, “takes a bit of the openness of America, a bit of the intellectual and philosophical culture of France, and perhaps some of our British reticence as well.” She hopes to eventually open up more schools, perhaps even in the United States. “Because we’re concerned with the big ideas and enduring themes,” she says, “they’re pretty culturally exportable. They’re the same things people worry about all over the world.”

It’s easy to get sniffy about Howarth and de Botton’s ambitious project. And yet their meticulous organization and rigorous quality control have turned what might have been pie in the sky into a very inspiring reality. I visited the School of Life at a time when personal circumstances had laid me low. I came back to America with a wholly different attitude. The School’s Isle of Wight holiday had expanded my horizons by taking me to a place of great natural beauty where I might never have gone on my own. It forced me to mingle with total strangers from other fields and walks of life. I began to take pictures again and to think about photography in new ways. I only had the chance to attend one session of the school’s “Work” course, but it encouraged me to think about my career path in relation to my parents’ and grandparents’ and to better appreciate the freedoms and opportunities they had given me.

Howarth and de Botton’s idea—to change society, one life at a time, through culture, literature, philosophy, and conversation—is quixotic. The thing about quixotic ideas is that, every so often, they work.