We like to think of the Idler Academy as a bit of a sanctuary: a place to learn, to satisfy your literary cravings and to take part in a series of inspiring events and activities, the Idler Academy promises to turn education into something that’s actually fun. If you’re one of those who enjoy soul-searching, digging into a good book and taking part in relaxing arts, literature and music courses (ukulele, classical philosophy or English grammar workshops, anyone?), then we reckon you’d fit right in with the rest of the Academy’s ‘students’.
We had a chance to talk to Idler Magazine editor Tom Hodgkinson, who shared everything from the Academy’s philosophy, to its most interesting courses, to what its devoted students can expect from it in the future. Have a read – you’re sure to appreciate the Idler Academy’s refreshing concept and lovely spin on education.
PlanetNotion: Tell us about yourself: what is the Idler Academy, what does it represent and who is behind it?
Tom Hodgkinson: The Idler Academy of Philosophy, Husbandry and Merriment is the educational offshoot of the Idler magazine, which I founded in 1993 to explore altermatives to wage slavery. The Idler Academy is a bookshop and café in west London which runs a series of courses and events. The idea is to teach forgotten or neglected subjects, such as Greek philosophy, calligraphy and grammar, in convivial surroundings. We run ukulele courses, carpentry courses, foraging courses and a course in Alexander Technique as well, so mind, body and spirit are catered for. We also put on talks by the likes of Louis Theroux, Adam Buxton, Will Self and all sorts of writers, philosophers, poets and musicians. We aim to combine the schools of Ancient Athens with the feel of an 18th century London coffeehouse. This is the place to come and learn new skills and new knowledge, and meet like-minded people. The creators of this idea are myself and Victoria Hull, who founded and ran the Clerkenwell Literary Festival. I am the author of four books for Penguin: How to be Idle, How to be Free, The Idle Parent and Brave Old World. I also contribute a column to the Independent on Sunday.
PN: What inspired the creation of the Idler Academy?
TH: It was inspired by the idea of the school in Ancient Greece. The word scholee originally meant leisure. So learning was something that you did in your spare time, for fun. And for the Greeks, philosophy was an everyday practical subject.
PN: For you, education is an equivalent of leisure and culture. Could you explain this philosophy? What ideals do you live by?
TH: Yes, education should be freely chosen and fun. And remember, this is a school with no exams! Aristotle said that the happiest life was the contemplative one: quiet study, reflection and debate are pleasures that can last all your life. Money-making and seeking prizes bring only temporary satisfaction. Our motto is libertas per cultum which means freedom through education. I believe that you can find freedom through conversation and study. But this is not a therapeutic school: it’s not just about developing a “positive attitude” and similar meaningless concepts. It is about learning practical skills and real knowledge. My hero William Cobbett wrote: “competence is at the foundation of happiness.”
PN: What does it take to become a student of the Idler Academy and how does one take part?
TH: You just book a course on the website or pop into the shop one day and have a chat. The first step might also be to sign up to our Head Master’s letters. This is where I announce talks, courses and other events. Just go to idler.co.uk and sign up for free.
PN: What are your main activities and courses?
TH: Our main ones are ukulele, philosophy and grammar. But we also teach classical music appreciation, calligraphy and Alexander Technique.
PN: Which courses would you most recommend to PlanetNotion readers?
TH: The English grammar one is very good indeed. Nowadays grammar is not taught well, so young people come into the world without a clue about where to put the apostrophe. We teach grammar in the old-fashioned way, and the results are fantastic: students write much more clearly and develop a better understanding of their own language. The grammar course is great for anyone who wants to improve the quality of their written communication.
PN: What events are currently going on at the Academy?
TH: Right now we are taking the Academy to festivals so things are quiet at the shop itself.
PN: Does the Academy have any upcoming events for the fall?
TH: Yes, we are looking forward to an evening with Will Self on Wednesday 19 September. Also we are doing an event at Hampton Court Palace on the theme of “vice and virtue” on 3 September. We are also booking Dominic West, Geoff Dyer, Boff Whalley and many more.
PN: What is the Academy’s involvement with the 2012 Shambala Festival?
TH: We have programmed a series of lectures and workshops. Speakers include Hugh Warwick on wild animals, David Bramwell on utopia, Boff Whalley on wild running and Matthew Green on the history of the London coffeehouse. We are also putting on a bread-baking workshop with the Rebel Food Alliance and a foraging lesson around the festival site with Robin Harford of Eatweeds. Plus there is an early music gig.
PN: Do you have any big plans or significant projects for the Idler Academy?
TH: One day we’d like to open more Idler Academies around the country, but right now our hands are full with just one. Our immediate plans are to improve the bookshop and extend the menu in the cafe. We are also about to launch a new website and Idler Club, which will give members 10% discount on everything we sell: books, cakes and courses. Can I also add that we have a lovely enclosed garden at the back of the shop, just the place for quiet contemplation with tea and cakes.
-Abbie Cohen @Abbiewrites
Photo © DIRK LINDNER