The College and the Coffeehouse, revisited



The coffee-houses were once called the 'penny universities', for a good reason.

These enlightenment era spaces - free spaces, as one commentator has called them - allowed trading of information and meeting of minds. Those were the places where ideas could have sex and imagine the world anew. Coffee, replacing Gin as the drink of choice, stimulated and energised, but Coffee Houses were more than just coffee. It was about knowledge and ideas, a conduit of assimilating the great leaps in science and technology into social practice. It allowed congregations very different from the social clubs, being open to all-comers (almost) and allowing the chaos, the democratic surround, that facilitated a creative revolution.

College is indeed the other enlightenment institution that is still with us. One may say college dates back further, back to the medieval or even ancient times depending on one's point of view, but the college that emerged out of enlightenment was very different from what came before. The idea of knowledge was changing - from scholastic to scientific - and what mattered more was a critical engagement with natural phenomena rather than a deep understanding of great texts. The college was also seen as the training ground for a 'natural aristocracy', an idea which will be called 'meritocracy' by later generations. But, most importantly, the key function of enlightenment college was to define and delimit knowledge, to bring order in the middle of chaos brought about by information revolution. By professionalising conversations, defining disciplines and credentialing expertise, this was the vehicle of the secular state into the realm of knowledge and ideas.

The College and the Coffee-house tell two sides of the story of the scientific revolution, the last great era of human creativity and progress. However, the narratives of these two forms are told in different contexts. The college is seen as a timeless institution, a cornerstone of western civilisation, removed from the hustle of everyday existence, dedicated to the advancement of human knowledge. Coffee-houses are idealised too, as an escape from today's sterile chain-store experience, as a place of human interactions, the 'third place' away from home and work. The link between the two is now broken. Neither the complementarity nor the oppositional relationship of the two is much remarked upon. Human knowledge and human connections have been put in different boxes, as we tend to do now.

Over time, the college has gradually extended its remit as the coffee-houses shrunk into establishments selling coffee. The wars of the Twentieth century and centralised global financial architecture that followed have allowed the state to establish a monopoly on knowledge and ideas, the only way a true hegemony of a narrow conception of the world can be established and maintained. The college became the third leg of a State and Business complex, regularising not only which way innovation flowed but also defining how the future must look like. High culture, high science and complex capital-rich innovations stole the day, regardless of whether 'average joe' understood its impact or got its benefit.

This is precisely the reason why we should link the narratives of coffee-houses and the college. The democratic space of the coffee-house enabled the learning curve and spread the benefits of new technology when it mattered. It helped direct the innovation to where it was most needed, at least in the contemporary local context. In fact, that was one of the key contributions of the Coffee Houses in the ecosystem of creativity and learning - it brought the local into the lofty world of ideas. Together, the colleges and coffee-houses marked the beginning of the modern age.

While we enjoy the consequences of the leap in knowledge thus attained, the expansion of the state and college credentials cut the coffee-house, and with it, democratic participation, from the ecosystem of creativity and learning. Within its ordered existence, the college has become a factory of state-directed and state-funded innovation, a machine of issuing credentials and a consumer store for professional careers. That system has reached a particularly low point now, as high technology has disconnected itself from street concerns and a smooth-voweled meritocracy has taken over the politics in the name of order. The benefits of progress have been skewed, the participation in politics has narrowed and the idea of what counts as progress diverged. The new ivory tower, made of steel and glass, has come into existence.

So far, this breakdown of contexts and connections has benefitted a group of demagogues, armed with the politics of offence and playing on the nihilistic temperaments of the disaffected populace. The meritocracy has taken note, shaken as it is by the sudden populist turn, but it has so far been viewed as a political problem, to be cured by scholarly articles in the respected journals. The point that the linkage between knowledge and conversations is broken has not occurred to them. Education problems have been identified as more college and better college, not in terms of revisiting the idea of knowledge. The economic panacea has been sought in artificial intelligence, not in an engaged culture of popular learning. The significance of the coffee-house has been missed in the obsession with institutions among those who matter.

 












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