The West

Alain de Botton in Melbourne

"There are lots of places where you can go to find out about history, psychology and philosophy but what you often can’t get is some sense of why it really matters to your life,” says Swiss-born philosopher and essayist, Alain de Botton. That’s why he welcomed the approach by a group of enterprising Australians to open the School of Life Perth.

The Northbridge pop-up school, based on de Botton’s highly successful London, Paris, Amsterdam and Melbourne schools, has enlisted the talents of local thinkers, writers and artists as well as tutors from the London and Melbourne to run nine weeks of after-work classes and weekend workshops through September and November.

The program will include such topics as How to Have Better Conversations, How to Find a Job You Love and How to Worry Less About Money.

The Cambridge-educated de Botton, who lives in London and whose books include Essays in Love, How Proust Can Change Your Life and The News: A User’s Manual, says Perth is an ideal city for a School of Life.
“If you go to a city like New York there’s stuff all the time and people get very spoilt. They go ‘Oh, not another symphony orchestra or yet another rolling performance of Shakespeare’. That’s why I think in many ways Perth is ideal. (It has a) population that is very culturally curious and waking up to all sorts of things.”

For de Botton, culture isn’t about sounding clever or smart or “knowing these fancy names for the sake of it”. Culture is useful because it has things to say.

“When you’ve got a tough diagnosis or you’re facing some other kind of challenge, there’s actually stuff in culture to help you deal with that. And that’s what the School of Life is formed around, the idea that culture is useful and that it can help us with the great challenge of what we tend to call emotional intelligence.”

The School of Life Perth director Ande Roestenburg, a driving force behind the Perth project with a background in political science and social impact, says the school is like a live version of a self-help book.

“Essentially we offer guidance and emotional intelligence by drawing on references from the humanities, sciences and arts,” she says. “We aim to be thought- provoking, and offer consolation and guidance that are relevant to people’s lives.”

Most importantly, the school “is an inclusive space where people can feel normal. People open up because the subjects are personal and intriguing and they enjoy engaging in dialogue about things that matter.
“We are interested in the whole human experience: sex, work, family, the self, community, love and death. These are common everyday problems that we are faced with as adults in the modern world, now that most of our concerns about food supply and shelter are taken care of.”

Of course, with popularisation comes the danger of simplification, and de Botton has his fair share of critics. Writing in The Spectator about de Botton’s book Art as Therapy, Fisun Guner suggested that “not only does de Botton have a rather depressing art-by-numbers approach to his own methodology, but he imagines that art and complex emotions can be viewed in a simplistic way too”.

“I think popularisation is one of the most important challenges of our time,” de Botton says. “We live in democracies with mass media and the danger is we’re going to end up with a very small elite who talk to one another and despair of the stupidity and the lack of insight and the sheer vulgarity of the mass. That’s a hugely damaging and unnecessary stance to take. I have a much more democratic, inclusive sense that actually intelligence is widely spread. Everyone can understand pretty much anything.”

De Botton admits he had a “so-called elite” education. “(I) went to a good university and hung out with academics, went down the academic track and at a certain point thought, these guys are not doing what they should be doing, which is feeding some of their ideas back into society.”

Indeed, he is “very proud” of using terms such as vulgarisation and popularisation. “They are absolutely essential in a democratic society. You need to make the good ideas popular, not just hide them away under the bed.”

Roestenburg agrees, adding: “I get the sense that Perth people crave cultural and intellectual stimulation and we want more opportunities to spend time engaging and connecting with others.”

For more details:

The West Australian

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