Review: The School of Life 30.10.08

words Johanna Agerman

There are few places in the world where you can exchange thoughts on creativity in the workplace with a tea trolley dancer, a freelance educational consultant and a carpenter. But at the School of Life you can, under the watchful eye of teacher of creative thinking Roman Krznaric.

The School of Life, which opened in September, is a cultural enterprise with Tardis-like premises on Marchmont Street in Bloomsbury. Behind this shopfront are two rooms, designed by artist/designer Susanna Edwards and graphic designer Joseph Harries, which offer services including a library, a travel agency, evening and weekend classes, secular sermons and coaching.

“It’s important that people can relate to it easily,” says school founder Sophie Howarth of the shopfront. “It’s on the high street because everybody knows how to go shopping so the idea is of a shop that sells ideas and experiences.” The school’s faculty includes contemporary thinkers such as pop-philosopher Alain de Botton, author Susan Elderkin, essayist Tom Hodgkinson and photographer Martin Parr. It feels much like an extension of art school and is therefore a good remedy for anyone in the creative community in need of direction or just some helpful advice.

There is no shortage of lectures, discussions, exhibitions and events taking place in London, but sometimes the sheer choice feels like an overload, and a filter is needed. The School of Life offers that filter in a neat package. Four nights a week and at weekends, the school runs evening classes on the subjects of work, love, politics and play. I’m invited to join the Monday class on work for their fifth session – a study trip to the workshop that belongs Unto this Last on Brick Lane. It’s to get the creative juices flowing for tonight’s topic “How can we feel more creative and free at work?”

The setting is school-like – sharpened pencils and sheets of paper are laid out in front of us. The class starts with the students being questioned on last week’s homework: a “job swap” where the students are encouraged to try a new occupation for a limited period of time. The teacher is Roman Krznaric, an expert on creative thinking. For several years he worked as project director at the Oxford Muse, a foundation established by the avant-garde thinker and historian Theodore Zeldin to “stimulate courage and invention in personal, professional and cultural life”. He delivers an inspiring presentation on creativity, making us consider the concept from political, philosophical as well as practical perspectives. William Morris’ writings on the problems of the workplace and the importance of craft and design for social reform are introduced on one Powerpoint slide, Csíkszentmihályi’s ideas on how to cultivate the flow experience and getting into the “zone” on another, Colin Ward’s philosophy of freedom as written about in Anarchy in Action on a third.

They are all very varied perspectives on the theme of creativity and such a brief presentation runs the risk of over-simplification, but it is the discussion around these topics and the practical experiments that we try, such as drawing Picasso’s portrait of Igor Stravinsky upside down, that are the main focus of the class. Rather than polishing on your intellectual abilities or show off your knowledge of historical thinkers, this class is about finding the link between the theories of creativity and your own life. It is also providing a place for discussion around these ideas. As one student says: “We never discuss ideas around work with friends or colleagues, we’re always busy talking ourselves or our jobs up, not actually talking about the meaning of work.”

This is where the School of Life offers the most potential for its students – as a forum for discussion of topics that are of great importance to us, but possibly feel too big or vague to approach on your own. The School of Life gives you the tools to change your outlook on life and work but it doesn’t change it for you, it’s like a live version of a self-help book.

After the class I feel as if my brain has had a vigorous workout. Not so much because of what I have learned, but because of the invigorating conversation on topics I wouldn’t normally approach on my own, and the familiar context of a class and teacher, which I have missed since my school days. The first time I heard of the School of Life I was sceptical, wondering about the ulterior motives behind such a venture. But the more I learn about it, the more impressive the scope of the school is. “It’s partly a response to the overload of information and to the difficulty of editing and navigating,” explains Howarth, who previously worked as curator of public programmes at the Tate. “You can say that we edit your intellectual nourishment.” A disturbing concept in some contexts, but an encouraging one on Bloomsbury’s Marchmont Street.

Leave a comment

Click to show