Too cool for night school?

The highbrow brainchild of Alain de Botton, the School of Life offers evening classes with a difference - as Samuel Muston reports

I am sitting in a basement classroom discussing Pam Ayres. It is not Ayres's poetry that is being debated tonight, however, or her skills as a TV and radio presenter. Rather, it's her status as an icon of cool. According to a woman sitting to my left, Ayres is the acme of the cool; she is chic personified. The reason? "Pam doesn't take herself seriously and surely that is what being cool is all about," she says.

It is what my old tutor would have called "an interesting thesis". I readily admit that I did not envisage Ayres popping in to the School of Life's How to be Cool evening class. I soon realise, however, that it is typical of the discourse here: counter-intuitive, forcefully made and a little eccentric. The School of Life is nothing if not unconventional. It is quite possibly the world's most high-brow night school; an Aristolean academy for the modern middle class. Instead of courses on shorthand, computing and beginners' French, the school conducts classes on the big issues of life: careers, relationships, politics, travels, families. And rather than doing so beneath the blinking strip lights of a community hall or college, it does so in the comfort of its sole, computer-free classroom and book shop on Marchmont Street in Bloomsbury, just down the road from University College London's campus. Aptly then, the place has the feel of a student common room to it.

The school was founded by entrepreneurial egghead Alain de Botton in 2008. The popular philosopher explains his aim to me in the well-worn terms that he always uses to describe his brainchild. "In a culture where anyone who attempts a serious conversation is at once accused of belonging to the 'chattering classes' and where anything too intellectual is in danger of being called pretentious, this is a place that attempts to put learning and ideas back to where they should always have been – right in the middle of our lives," he says.

Whereas universities and colleges subdivide learning into categories – "modern literature", say, or "social history" – De Botton explains that his school focuses its classes on things with real-life applications. "[We] aim to lay out the best ideas in a systematic and appealing way."

In January alone, a roster of writers, philosophers, artists and scientists – all of them employed on a freelance basis – will visit the school to teach one of the 30 classes on 24 subjects. The courses, which cost an average £40 per session, aim to help people live better, more fulfilling lives and develop emotional intelligence with the help of culture.

Classes range from How to Find a Job You Love, to How to Be Creative, and Finding a Career That Fits. Students can visit the School's secular Sunday Sermons or take Yoga Therapy for the Mind. Or should they wish, they can follow me in my fit of new-year self-improvement and take classes in How to be Cool (although surely cool is innate, not learnt?), How to Fill the God-Shaped Hole, or undergo a one-on-one bibliotherapy session.

Before any class is advertised, de Botton must give it the nod. And the breadth of courses on offer seems to reflect the interests of this voluble public intellectual. Born in Switzerland and educated at the progressive Dragon School and then Cambridge University, he has written books on religion, philosophy and how to be a success. He founded Living Architecture, a not-for-profit holiday-home rental company, and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His interests are as diverse as they come.

Despite all that, De Botton is on record as saying that he is most proud of the School of Life, which has had more than 100,000 people through its doors since inception and is set to open six new locations around the world this year. With its bookstore, which sells filleted works of philosophy with a focus on self-help, its weekend courses and night classes, it is , De Botton has said, on its way to meeting its financial targets. Certainly, the night I attend, the class is full. The participants are of all ages and backgrounds. There are students and pensioners and men in suits, and women with expensive handbags. Everyone gravitates to the wine; a large plate of vol-au-vents is passed around.

Nick Southgate, an avuncular figure in a blue woolly jumper and sensible shoes, leads the class. Now Southgate, a former philosophy lecturer, does not have the devil-may-care aura of, say, Brad Pitt. He has, in fact, the aura of an academic. Still, he is personable and funny and after we are seated in the semi-circle of chairs in front of him, he starts, as any good academic would, by nailing down the concept.

"Cool is confusing," he says, as a dozen pens scratch out his words on the pad and clipboard we've been given. "But," he continues, "it is fairly well established in the literature that coolness comes from people." The cool literature? Hmm.

I let that slide. And soon we move on to dissecting – some might say eviscerating – cool. We have been asked to bring to the class a picture of someone we think of as cool, pictures that Southgate has put up around the whiteboard. We start with those who are practically ice – Susan Sontag ("so literate" and "so clever", say my classmates), Katharine Hepburn ("challenging, statuesque, sometimes funny"). They are pretty incontrovertible. But then we come to Ayres and her, er, coolness.

I can't help but interrupt at this point. I suggest that perhaps Ayres is not up there with, say, Steve McQueen. A discussion ensues. Ayres apparently "doesn't take herself seriously" – which makes her cool. But, I say, she hardly sets the tone of life or inspires admiration and imitation. Few yearn to be Ayres or go to bed with Ayres.

My ideas don't wash with Southgate. He dubs my emergent thesis as "an elitist version of cool". He prefers things to be democratic, he says. And then I understand. This class is not about teaching us all how to be attractive in leather jackets or to dance without self-consciousness. It's about making us all feel a bit better, grinding away the neuroses we accumulate in day-to-day life. And, of course, having a stimulating conversation on the way.

As things draw to a close half an hour later, I wonder if I feel any cooler. I certainly don't look any cooler. But what of my fellow students? Have they got what they want from the class? Has it delivered? Victor Szilagyi, a computer programmer who is attending the School of Life for the first time, has enjoyed the evening. "I'm not convinced this has made me cooler but the conversation has been interesting and that's exactly what I expected and why I came. It's much more interesting than a networking event and beats going out for work drinks."

The next stop in my programme of self-improvement is Filling the God-Shaped Hole with a Bristolian teacher called Hugo Whately. I begin by asking what it involves, filling this God-shaped hole? He explains that it is about engaging with the notion of spirituality. "The premise is that religion is not just about God. We set him to one side and then engage with all the other stuff," he says. What that means, in practice, is exploring the art, architecture and community that exist around the church, while ignoring the dogma."

It is an interesting notion, sort of like Religion: The Director's Cut. And the class is a popular one, drawing a cross-section of folk. Undergraduates, pensioners and overseas students are his bread and butter. Though he says, "more than once I've had one particular Buddhist City banker attend".

People come, he says, because most of us are conscious of the gap left in our social and communal life by the demise of organised religion. "The church was once a place to take our existential concern, our grief and joy: it was where you went with your ultimate concerns. We don't have that, so we need something else," he says.

You may now be thinking: sounds a bit like a wannabe prophet, this Whately. In fact, he hedges his bets (which, I admit, disappoints me somewhat). "I don't have the answers. Who does? Success for the course is for people to root around in the conceptual underground: to have a good think." He is, he says, just happy if people leave having spoken to someone new about what interests or ails them.

My third School of Life class is perhaps the most self-revelatory. Five minutes into my bibliotherapy session with Ella Berthoud and I seem to have lost all sense of discretion. I lay out my problems before her like playing cards on the baize and she, in turn, prescribes a big dollop of well-chosen prose.

What happens is this: first, Berthoud, a painter and novelist, sends you an innocuous-looking questionnaire by email. The questions range from "How would you describe your relationship to books?" through "Did books feature largely in your childhood?" to "Do you always finish a book?" You fill it in with as much detail as you want and send it back to her before your chat. Now, what you should know about Berthoud is that she has a manner pitched somewhere between a confessor and a consultant. She has the habit of letting silences hang in the air; silences I find myself filling all too readily. It all feels far more like a real therapy session than a university tutorial. Soon, I am explaining that when I look at a bookcase or the ever-growing pile of books at my bedside, the first thing I feel is anxiety and the second, a straight: "Damn, I've got a lot to catch up on."

She isn't judgemental though. As she later explains, she is used to this sort of unburdening; it is part of the process. She soothes me by saying: "I'm sure you are very busy with work."

Her prescription comes three days later on four pages of A4. My "ailment" is confirmed on the first page, "sense of anxiety about not reading enough". Prescription: put down Gore Vidal and read contemporary novelists. May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes and Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart both get the nod. I am also to set aside an hour a day and two at the weekend in which to read in silence: a dual solution which means I read more and drink less. I admit, I feel a tad uncomfortable having opened up to a complete stranger but I gratefully accept her plan for me.

My School of Life experience complete, I return to a life without instruction. It is not necessarily a cooler life or free of reading woes or one with the God-shaped hole plugged. I am a work in progress, after all. The enrichment – and it has been enriching – has been subtler, as you might get from seeing an interesting play or falling for a sparkling poem. Its lingering benefit is not profound necessarily, but, still, I am happy to have spent time thinking a little deeper and harder about the way I live my life. I am, then, glad that I visited the School of Life. But no one on earth will ever convince me that Pam Ayres is cool. µ

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