The Long Journey HOME: On (Finally) Starting a School
Last week, we made an invitation to a school called HOME, a school for culturemakers. This is a project which Anna Björkman and I have created, drawing on the work that each of us have done over the past couple of decades. The first course will take place from 4-8 June this year in the village of Ängelsberg, Sweden. What follows is taken from a letter I sent out a few days ago, reflecting on the long journey that had led me here.
There are books that matter to you immensely at a certain moment in your life and a few years later you can hardly remember why — and then there are pieces of writing, often no more than a few lines, that you know you’d carry with you to the ends of the world.
One of mine is a passage from The Cultivation of Conspiracy, an address given by Ivan Illich in Bremen in 1998. He is looking back on the places of convivial learning that he had created with his friends over the previous forty years — from a ‘thinkery’ in a one-room shack on a Puerto Rican hillside, to the Centre for Intercultural Documentation at Cuernavaca, Mexico, to the hospitable household at Kreftingstraße, where on Fridays after Illich’s lectures the spaghetti bowl would feed two dozen guests around the table, with sometimes more spilling out to sit on the Mexican rugs in the next room. In all of these places, he says, they have sought to foster a particular atmosphere:
Learned and leisurely hospitality is the only antidote to the stance of deadly cleverness that is acquired in the professional pursuit of objectively secured knowledge. I remain certain that the quest for truth cannot thrive outside the nourishment of mutual trust flowering into a commitment to friendship.
I’ve carried those lines for years, like a navigational instrument, looking for the places which have that atmosphere, seeking to cultivate it in the spaces where I’ve worked. So when I think about what it means to start a school, it doesn’t start with a course or a curriculum or a building, but with the way of being together that Illich is talking about.
There are people whose work you discover at the right moment. The year I discovered Illich, I was twenty-five and I’d just walked out on what looked like the beginnings of a successful career at the BBC. I’ve heard stories like this often enough now to know the pattern: sometimes you have to give up, to turn down the offer no sensible person would refuse, to walk away without any explanations that will satisfy your friends’ parents or your parents’ friends, because that’s the price of entry to a different kind of life. At the time, all I knew was that I’d exchanged a staff job in the newsroom for temping in warehouses and call centres, a new sense of freedom, and the realisation that the university careers service didn’t have any lives my shape. If I wasn’t going to contort myself into one of the careers on offer, I would have to make a life of my own.
Books were my friends that year and I read with a focus that surpassed anything I’d had as a student at Oxford. I was reading for my life and the writers I discovered became my companions.
Four years down the road, I would travel to Cuernavaca, to a gathering of Illich’s friends and collaborators, where the atmosphere he spoke about in Bremen still lingered in the late night conversations. I remember sharing a taxi through the city with one of them, Carl Mitcham, and telling him that I was working on an internet startup inspired by Deschooling Society. At this, he burst out laughing. ‘I remember Ivan telling me, “People are saying I invented this internet!” The thought was enough to make him throw up his hands in horror!’
School of Everything — the startup I co-founded in 2006 — took its inspiration from Illich and the ‘free universities’ of the late 1960s, but the path it went down was summed up by Cory Doctorow, who wrote that we were building ‘the eBay for learning’. What’s strange is that we knew better. The five of us who started it had met in a room where learning was understood as a matter of relations, not transactions. It was one of a series of such rooms, spaces with names like the University of Openness, the Temporary School of Thought and the Really Free School. On a good day, they too had that atmosphere, and they were spaces in which people seemed to come alive.
Out of those experiences came a desire for something more-than-temporary. And I had been learning the art of talking projects into reality: after School of Everything, I started Spacemakers, and the same year, Paul Kingsnorth and I launched Dark Mountain. I’d grasped something about how to tell a big story and invite people to step inside that story and make it real together. I was just past thirty, and making up for lost time, running off the raw red energy that comes with discovering your own abilities. I didn’t know much yet about limits, or about failure.
So in the early spring of 2011, I threw out my biggest story yet. First on the internet, and then in talks at places like the Royal Society of Arts and TEDx London, I asked for help to start a new kind of university. I’d pulled off enough wild schemes by then that people gave me a hearing, and all kinds of conversations and connections came about as a result — but as summer turned to autumn, the plan unravelled, while the pace at which I’d been living finally caught up with me. Within a year, I would leave London.
It was a humbling time. Soon after I arrived in Sweden, I remember my old friend Charlie Davies — he was the one who had brought together the temporary school where the founders of School of Everything first met — handing me a small coin, looking me in the eye, and saying, ‘I give you failure.’ There are journeys for which no other currency is taken.
The luckiest stroke I ever had was that, just as my London life fell to pieces, I met someone who could see past the mess I was in and who chose to make a life with me. Anna and I had been travelling different routes, but steering by the same stars. In her case, the route had led from connecting cultural foundations around Europe, to setting up children’s libraries in the Middle East and supporting women’s organisations in Israel and Palestine. At the heart of it was a commitment to conviviality: her tiny flat in Stockholm was dominated by a table large enough to seat fourteen; the wall between the kitchen and the bedroom had been taken down to make room for it.
As I said goodbye to London, having given up on the idea of starting some kind of university, I remember an unfamiliar sensation of patience. Whatever mattered about that idea would come back in a different form when the time was right.
If the time seems right now, that’s firstly because I’m not doing it alone. Over the past six years, Anna and I have made a home together that is a place of friendship, hospitality and intercultural encounter. We knew from the start that we wanted to make a wider invitation and create a shared foundation for our work. In the idea of a school called HOME, that intention has found its form.
Then it’s because I have things to teach. Looking back, those earlier free universities and temporary schools were a source of fellowship, a meeting point for an invisible college in which I found my contemporaries — and bringing people together like that still feels vital. But in the past couple of years, I’ve found that the teaching I do is moving to the heart of my work. Walking into a room, sharing stories and ways of thinking that I’ve found helpful, letting the questions that follow lead us deeper. (As I write this, I remember a recent visit to the Kaospilots school in Aarhus, Denmark: for a month afterwards, most days my phone would ping with mails and messages from students who had been in that room, still resonating with the ideas we’d talked about.) So I want to create the conditions where I can do that well.
Finally, the time seems right because I’ve come to see another way of making projects happen. Sometimes telling the biggest story you can and getting hundreds or thousands of people to step inside it is the way to go — but the best work often happens more quietly. I’m prouder of the West Norwood Feast, the community-owned streetmarket that Spacemakers helped start in south London, than the project that we did at Brixton Village, which is the one that got all the attention.
For several years now, I’ve been teaching residential courses at places like Schumacher College, so the first step in starting this school is to take that kind of course and organise it on our own terms.
Beyond that, Anna and I are inspired by the example of small schools that offer longer programmes — places like the Westcountry School of Myth and Story, run by our friend Martin Shaw, or Stephen Jenkinson’s School of Orphan Wisdom. So before long, we want to create something along those lines, making an invitation to be part of a learning community that comes together several times a year.
In the longer-term, our intention is to find a permanent location, a place we can call home in all senses of the word, with the further possibilities that would offer. A few years from now, I’d love to be holding a yearly summer school, a little like what I’ve heard tell of the summers in Cuernavaca, half a century ago.
In the meantime, we’ve found a beautiful setting in which to get started, working with a family-run hostel in Ängelsberg. It’s a village of 150 people with its own railway station, there’s a lakeside sauna and all the other things you’d want in Sweden with midsummer around the corner. And going by the first few people who are on board, it will be quite a special gang that gathers there this June.
There was a time when I was launching projects left, right and centre — throwing out ideas, some of which took on a life of their own, while others left no trace. Writing this, I realise that it’s been a while since I launched something new, and rarely have I put as much of my heart into a project as with this little idea for a school.
It won’t be a school of everything, and it doesn’t promise to reinvent the university. We’re not out to build a grand highway to the future. This is a little road heading into the woods. Maybe you will join us on that road. I hope so.
Our first course will be a five-day residential from 4-8 June in Ängelsberg, Sweden, where I’ll be teaching alongside the practical philosopher Andrew Taggart. To read more, visit our website — and if the invitation speaks to you, please don’t delay in sending us an enquiry, as places are likely to fill up within the next week or two.