Creating a Haven for Lifelong Learning One Drink at a Time

This article was originally published online at RealClearLife.com.

Calling the erudite, the adventurous, the lifelong learners: There’s now a haven in New York City for those in search of cerebral exercise, and its location changes every single week.

It’s called Think Olio, and it extracts the stuffiness and pretension from an Ivy League course without compromising the expertise.

“Olio means a miscellaneous collection of art and literature, and so our classes sort of reflect that,” David Kurfirst, one of the organization’s founders, told RealClearLife. “We have teachers from all different disciplines who are constantly pitching us what’s on their mind.”

Setting up preparations for “Sound and NYC: Exploring Silence in the City” in The Strand Bookstore’s Rare Book Room. (Diana Crandall)

Kurfirst and co-founder Chris Zumtobel capture the nostalgia of college classes — plus alcohol — in what they call a “nomadic learning series,” and it’s been sprawling across the city for the last three years: In pro bono law firms and art galleries, in bars and restaurants and in a penthouse recording studio in Times Square, if there’s a space to be commandeered for a pop-up class, Think Olio has likely considered taking it over for an evening. The topics range massively, swinging from “Shakespeare and the Invention of the Supervillain” to “Unlocking Mulholland Drive, David Lynch, and the Monstrous Hollywood Dream Machine” and covering niche and unique topics in between.

“Friday was a class on the jazz age in Paris, and there was a cellist there,” Kurfirst said, recalling the most recent release of their publication, Olio Note. “Saturday we had a house party where we had a professor teach on the 1950s from a historical perspective, and the next morning we had a poetry class in the basement of an art gallery with bagels and coffee.”

Professor Whitney George at The Strand Bookstore for a Think Olio on John Cage (Diana Crandall)

One of the most recent Olios took place in the Strand Bookstore’s Rare Book Room where RealClearLife joined the entrepreneurs for a lecture from composer and conductor Whitney George titled “Sound and NYC: Exploring Silence in the City.” Surrounded by collectibles, including first editions of Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” and volumes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes,” George kicked off her lecture on musician John Cage with enthusiasm and poise, her excitement for the subject infectious beneath the bookstore’s warm white string lights.

“Rhythm is the heartbeat and pulse of the piece of music, and where our attention tends to gravitate,” George told an engaged audience, before diving into history, Cage, and how humans consume music. But the lecture wasn’t powerpoint-based for long; within a few short minutes, one of George’s percussionists from her own chamber orchestra, The Curiosity Cabinet, began a live demonstration of Cage’s works.

A percussionist from The Curiosity Cabinet performs the work of John Cage live at The Strand Bookstore (Diana Crandall)

“We’re taking music out of the very formal academic atmosphere and putting into a new sort of framing device or framework. It’s like bringing art home,” George, who’s currently working toward her Ph.D. at the CUNY Graduate Center, told RealClearLife before beginning her lecture. “There are these subjects that we’re interested in as the general public but they don’t have a home or a place in the university, and Think Olio is a place bridging that gap.”

Peruse upcoming classes —including Cold War Nostalgia, Democracy Without Truth and the Origins of Sexual Desire — here. But when you arrive, don’t expect to leave with something tangible. Olios are ephemeral, with the takeaway coming in altered perspectives and new ways to discuss a subject you’re passionate about.

“Having people around you that are all engaged on one topic and a teacher there who is well-versed in the subject, and the ability to raise your hand and ask a question and start a conversation, it’s a great way to meet like-minded people in the city,” Kurfirst said. “We’re all used to going out to dinner or going out to a bar or a party, but this is a nice fresh way to engage with people.”

 

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