One recent Tuesday evening, nine twenty- and thirtysomethings gathered in the back room of Boerum Hill’s Building on Bond to discuss a crucial text for understanding our sociopolitical moment: Plato’s Republic. While a waitress brought dinner and $3 pints of Bud, their conversation meandered from the foundational treatise to related matters left unexplored by its author, like whether Ron Paul’s libertarianism is more deontological or consequentialist. (The consensus: probably deontological at heart, though voters demand consequentialist arguments.) Two hours in, the crowd migrated up to the bar, where the discussion continued in the same vein. They were still drinking and talking when the bartender announced last call.
What transpired that night just may represent the future of higher education—or at least one proudly low-tech vision of it. Politics of the City, the formal name for the somewhat informal gathering, is the first course offered by the new Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Its instructor, Ajay Chaudhary, dreamed up the institute while teaching in Columbia’s famed Core Curriculum, in which every undergraduate reads the classics of Western civilization. “Whenever I talked with people outside the university about what I did,” Chaudhary said, “they would tell me, ‘I want to do that. I want to read Aristotle and Augustine.’ ”
Continuing-education programs tend to be bluntly functional (professional-development courses like computer programming or bookkeeping), less than rigorous (culture “appreciation” classes), or flat-out silly (see “Transformers Star Tyrese Gibson: How to Get Out of Your Own Way—Tips for Making It” at the Learning Annex). More serious academic fare is proliferating online, but those classes are primarily for quants not quals. When Stanford professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig attracted 160,000 online students to an artificial-intelligence course last fall, instructional videos guided students through key equations, and assignments were auto-graded by computer. It’s hard to see how such an approach would translate for the humanities, and even Thrun hasn’t found the answer. His start-up web university, Udacity, plans to offer classes only in science and engineering.
To get the Brooklyn Institute off the ground, Chaudhary recruited several Columbia colleagues to join him, then convinced his neighborhood hangout to donate space, promising big bar tabs in return (so far, so good). A new course on the history of communication technologies—“from the telegraph to Twitter”—is under way, and classes on Freud and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project are in the works. Chaudhary’s goals for further expansion are modest, but in that modesty rests much of his venture’s appeal. Higher ed is an increasingly bloated business, whether it’s private universities with their billion-dollar endowments or for-profit behemoths like the University of Phoenix with its student body in the hundreds of thousands. The Brooklyn Institute is learning for the Slow Food set, with lower barriers to entry, students and faculty sharing in academic responsibilities, and minds enriched by regular tending, the ivory tower eschewed for a community garden.
It’s not a model that works on a mass scale, but it’s certainly one that can be cloned. After all, it’s been done before. As the students of Politics in the City would be all too happy to remind the reigning university overlords: Plato’s academy itself began with just a few guys sitting around, talking.