Forty-five strangers have gathered at a candle-lit restaurant to enjoy pork loin, sorbet and, they hope, some sparkling conversation. After discussing aphorisms served up in lieu of canapés, the diners pose questions to one another from a discussion menu that accompanies their meal: "When did you stop being a child?" reads one prompt. "Tell me about a memorable conversation you've had with one or both of your parents," reads another.
The evening, say organizers at The School of Life in London, is designed to help guests open their minds "to be tickled, exercised and expanded." But for struggling actress Katie Mooney, 24, the process proves more awkward than enlightening. "It feels like a mixture between speed-dating and therapy," she says. Indeed, Mooney is seated opposite a clinical psychologist who, just five minutes into the first course, has already shared his fear that his patients desire him sexually and his deep resentment toward his parents for sending him to boarding school. "I didn't even know his last name," Mooney says the next day. "It was the most uncomfortable I've ever been at a dinner table." (Watch the video: "A Day in The (School of) Life".)
Pushing people out of their comfort zones is an essential aim of the School of Life, which opened in September. Situated in Bloomsbury, once home to London literati like E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, the school promises "intelligent instruction on how to lead a fulfilled life." Physically, it's a small bookshop with a classroom in the basement, but it has the earnest feel of a book club hosted by a psychotherapist. Instruction can take the form of six-week courses on family, love, play, politics or work ($320), or can involve spending an hour with one of the school's experts ($80), including an atheist, a beekeeper and a man who escaped from a World War II detention camp. Recently, the school hosted DIY lessons on how to hang wallpaper in the style of Ernest Hemingway. Each offering, says Sophie Howarth, the school's founder, addresses Plato's question: "What is the right way to live?"
With its mix of whimsy and humor, the school has become a surprise hit in a land of supposedly reticent people. On its opening day, a thousand visitors passed through, some sprawling on a cheetah-print chaise longue for impromptu therapy sessions, others buying books shelved in categories like "For Those Who Have Fallen Profoundly and Unexpectedly in Love" and "For Those Whose Jobs Are Too Small For Their Spirit." It sounds hopelessly self-indulgent, but for anyone confronting existential angst, a dose of high-brow self-help can go a long way. "We start from the perspective that most lives are quite chaotic and turbulent," says faculty member Alain de Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life. "The school is a guide rail to hang on to."
Those facing personal quandaries can consult resident "bibliologists" who dispense reading prescriptions ($56). When one young expat recently sought to palliate his profound distaste for London, therapist Ella Berthoud suggested Oliver Twist. She reasoned that he "might identify with the street urchins through whose disillusioned but ever hopeful eyes Dickens' London is observed."
Reading is no substitute for living, so the school also runs "holidays" to help people engage with their surroundings. Students can go to Heathrow Airport ($480) to explore the anxiety, fear and love brought forth by travel. And De Botton leads a lecture tour on the "haunting, alienated quality" of British truck stops. "It's a chance," he says, "to make ourselves more at home in the world we live in."
Sadly, what's lacking for Mooney, the young actress, isn't so much enlightenment as opportunity. When a fellow diner asks, "Is there something you've dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven't you done it?" she responds candidly: "There are so many things I'd like to do travel, swim with sharks but money always stands in the way. It's a fight for survival in London." And that's a problem not even a generous helping of philosophy can solve.