March 25, 2009 / 1:56 PM / 10 years ago

London's "School of Life" offers meaning in crisis

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - When it opened its doors late last year — the same day investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed — the School of Life could hardly have predicted that the world’s economy was about go into meltdown.

Still less might it have imagined that its lectures and courses in love, family, work, politics and play — all healthily sprinkled with philosophy — would suddenly prove so unremittingly popular that it could barely cope with numbers.

But the world’s economy has virtually melted down and the School of Life — less a school than an arty bookshop with a classroom downstairs in the Bloomsbury neighborhood of central London — has become something of a sanctuary from the chaos.

Designed to give its students — mostly urban professionals looking to expand their horizons — lessons in life and how better to appreciate its quirks and foibles, the school has tapped a rich vein at a time of social and economic uncertainty.

Offering Sunday ‘sermons’ on topics such as humility, envy, pessimism, risk and adultery, guidance on how to be a better conversationalist and advice on how to have more meaningful holidays, the school has become a spiritual and philosophical compass for those battered by the storms of life.

“We’re not trying to tap into the reportage of the doom and gloom but to be more constructive about what is going on in our lives, and people seem to warm to that,” said Sophie Howarth, the school’s director and a former curator at Tate Modern.

“Since the credit crisis, the most notable thing has been an increase in interest in our work course, which looks at ‘what do we want from work and from the jobs that we do’.

“The fact that we are more or less an optimistic place, while acknowledging that there is sometimes drudgery in work and that can be appreciated, helps us resonate with people.”


As well as six-week-long courses in its core subjects, taught one evening a week, the school offers advice on illuminating books to read, hosts meals at which guests are encouraged to broaden their conversational gambits, and gives guidance on out-of-the-ordinary holidays, such as “a holiday inside your head” and “an urban gardening holiday.”

Among the faculty and advisers are noted writers, artists, polemicists and philosophers, including Alain de Botton, the author of “How Proust Can Change Your Life” and the recently published “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.”

With six-week courses costing 195 pounds ($290), and meals, held in smart London restaurants, priced at around 50 pounds a head, the School of Life naturally attracts professionals in their 20s, 30s and 40s, although retirees are known to pitch up.

The global economic crisis, with its huge impact on financial markets, jobs and businesses, has also had a profound social impact, prompting people to think differently about how they live their lives and what they seek from existence.

Haworth believes those large questions are not to be avoided or shirked, and finds that the hundreds of people coming through the School of Life’s doors are keen to tackle them head on.

“The history of ideas belongs to all of us and is there to be accessed — and it’s free. Things that are deep, meaningful and free are in demand right now,” she said.

The school’s Sunday sermons, in which a noted lecturer or writer takes on Big Themes in a discursive way, have also proved popular, particularly those that focus on values, said Haworth.

At a time when Britain and other countries are reassessing the celebrity obsession that has overrun much of modern culture, places like the School of Life seem to offer needed substance.

“There’s suddenly a lot of honesty running through everything, people want to cut through the nonsense, and I think that’s where we come in,” she said.

For the likes of bankers, management consultants and money managers caught up in the financial maelstrom, it is proving a seductive refuge that may have long-term benefits.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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