School Gives Adult Students An Existential Kick

"Adult education doesn't have to be dowdy," says Sophie Howarth, founder of London's School of Life. The school is a place of higher learning dedicated to "the practical application of philosophy on life's core subjects — love, politics, work, family and play."

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

This past Thursday night just across campus from the austere University of London, an upstart school began with a radically different lesson plan, the School of Life. It's for 30 to 40 somethings who need an existential kick to the head. On the outside, the school looks like a charming little bookstore. It offers what they call biblio-therapy or specialized reading recommendations designed to take you out of your Harry Potter comfort zone. Inside, a couple dozen students anxiously await the night's introductory lecture for the course on love. NPR's London producer got the scene.

Mr. MARK VERNON (Teacher, School of Life): I'm Mark Vernon, and I've been involved with helping to raise and develop the love course here at the School of Life. But taking sort of serious ideas, looking at the big hitters is in the canon, as it were, on love, think like Plato, and the romantics, and things.

SEABROOK: Mark Vernon doesn't think of himself as Dr. Love. He's bald and bespectackled. Vernon's a former priest, now an author of books on Philosophy and friendship. He leads the students past rows of books and down a staircase to the basement classroom. Mark Vernon starts the lesson with the Aristophanes myth, the theory that humans started as both man and woman fused together.

Mr. VERNON: And the myth is quite funny because he talks about how we were round, and we spun around the earth as if we were wheels, and this gave us a lot of power. And the gods looked down from heaven and got very nervous about these human people and their power. And so what they did was they cut the spherical human beings in half. This meant that the humans will though they had this - had had this painful separation could find that it lacks half, and they could be joined again in this ecstasy called love.

SEABROOK: Mark Vernon's course on love is just one of five offered this semester. Earlier this week, I spoke with Sophie Howarth, the founder of the School of Life.

Ms. SOPHIE HOWARTH (Founder, School of Life): I guess I thought, wouldn't it be great if there was really such a place? And if instead of sort of going through the School of Hard knocks, you could actually find an environment where you could learn about how to get on with your family, how to have successful relationships.

SEABROOK: So the School of Life offers courses in five different areas. I love this. They are?

Ms. HOWARTH: Love, of course, work, family, play, and politics. We wanted to run courses where you could ask the questions that really keep you awake at night. How do I get on with my mom and dad? Why am I so frustrated by my boss? What shall I do this weekend? Why isn't the government sorting out the economy? And how do I make love last? So these are things where there is a mine of good ideas and bad ideas, I should say, in what we would call culture, which is really to say the kind of inheritance that we all have of other peoples' thinking. And we wanted to reorganize culture, take it out of the ivory tower, and organize it around the big things of everyday living.

SEABROOK: So, for example, tell me what do you learn in the class about love?

Ms. HOWARTH: Well, you learn a range of different proposals, ideas, and positions, so we learned from Aristophanes. We learn from Abelard and Eloise. We heard from Woody Allen. We learn from Jane Austin. We learn from a whole range of people ideas that they've had about the big questions. We don't tell you how to love or what's right or wrong. We offer the chance to explore the history of ideas and thinking about love.

SEABROOK: What's this worth? I mean, is this just fun and games and a big giant art project, or is there a serious goal here?

Ms. HOWARTH: Well, it felt to me as if there were a number of different areas of engagement and teaching that we're not communicating with each other. For example, I notice that while you have an enormous, massive, interesting material in the worlds of academia or in culture, you've often got better teaching methods from personal development and from business facilitation. And yet, those two worlds are so snooty about each other, they never communicate.

So what we wanted to do in a way was to choreograph these areas together to be a kind of antidote to cultural snobbery and say, instead of feeling that you - to learn about the fourth chapter of "Middle March" and the footnotes that are associated with it, what we want to do is turn to ideas, turn to books, turn to artworks, turn to philosophy, turn to experiences, turn to oral history, and ask what's in there that's relevant to me now? What is really useful to help me make decisions every day to be more wise in a way which goes back as far as kind of Socrates and Plato and this idea of learning for good living?

SEABROOK: Sophie Howarth, she's the director of The School of Life in London. The school just finished its first week of classes. Thanks so much, and good luck.

Ms. HOWARTH: Thank you, Andrea.

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