People often say, after a class at the School of Life, that they weren’t expecting to enjoy talking so much, and especially not to complete strangers. Perhaps there is a freedom there, they muse; no past, no baggage, just the meeting of curious minds. I think so too. It is an unusual environment: a place of conversation about the things that matter between people who have probably never met before. Jurgen Habermas said that in the London coffee houses of the 18th Century we find the origins of a properly public space that had no affiliation to the state - a place where conversation flowed and where ideas thrived. John Stuart Mill saw conversation as one of the primary sources of progress in human civilization; to put ourselves outside of our assumptions about who we are and what we believe is exhilarating and, at best, down-right life affirming.
So the conversations that really matter, said Theodore Zeldin, are the ones that change us. You want to change the world? You want the future to be brighter than the past? Start talking, to anyone and everyone, about what matters. Imagine those future professors, sifting digital archives of our times, forced to conclude that we were a wise and subtle people who pursued each other’s company with vigor and abandon, brave souls who knew, if only by dimly lit intuition, that simply to talk to others across boundaries and barriers of difference would be a powerful tool for shaping a better world. Is that too optimistic? Plug in, log on, dial up, connect, interrupt, catch an eye or just go ahead and introduce yourself. How ever you like to do it, just think this to yourself: with whom shall I converse, freely, on this most extraordinary of days?