Old School Becomes New School

Young academics are bringing Plato to the masses in the back of a Brooklyn bar, one 12-person seminar at a time.

April 17, 2012

The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research doesn’t hand out diplomas. Its instructors don’t give grades. It doesn’t have a building to call its own. No one there cares about your SAT score.

And Ajay Singh Chaudhary, the Columbia University doctoral student who founded the institute last year, doesn’t want any of those trappings of traditional higher education.

What the Brooklyn Institute provides, he hopes, is a place for academics to supplement their pay while conducting research and teaching reasonably priced, high-level classes to adult students of all backgrounds.

At this point, the ambitions outpace the infrastructure. But the project is growing as a group of young graduate students and adjunct instructors (most from Columbia) produce podcasts and lead classes in the back room of a Brooklyn bar. Mondays last fall, Chaudhary taught a course relating the works of Plato and Aristotle to modern politics. This spring, he’s leading a six-week look at The Arcades Project while a colleague examines modern communication through the lens of classic literature.

The classes are modeled after traditional liberal arts seminars, with a side of Guinness and chicken wings. The bar donates the space to the class, which in turn reciprocates with food and drink orders on otherwise slow nights.

Chaudhary drew his inspiration in part from Max Horkheimer's now-defunct Institute for Social Research in Germany, where independent research was valued. Those Old World roots are important, Chaudhary said, as the Brooklyn Institute seeks to build a local, face-to-face base instead of the online presence favored by most higher ed upstarts.

The Brooklyn Institute’s first batch of students is mainly young, college-educated and genuinely interested in topics they might not have another way to discuss in such depth. Chaudhary has been impressed with the dedication of the current students, and hopes to attract a wider swath of curious New Yorkers to future classes.

“I do really, really want to reach out to people who maybe never had a college opportunity at all,” Chaudhary said. “No, you do not have to have a college degree to come study here. But we are not dumbing anything down. We think it’s possible to teach this to a very diverse group.”

But so far most students are professionals, some of whom arrive at the bar with extensive academic credentials. Alyssa Pelish, 34, left a Ph.D. program in literature four years ago but found herself still wanting to read and learn. Now a freelance writer with a job at a nonprofit agency, she’s taking her second Brooklyn Institute class this spring.

Pelish enjoys the material, and also likes to support young scholars who can use some extra cash while trying to live in New York on grad student stipends and adjunct pay.

“I know the disappointment of the Ponzi scheme of academia these days,” Pelish said. “This whole endeavor of theirs, it feels so cooperative. They’re pulling in people from the community on so many levels.”

Chaudhary doesn’t use such strong terms in discussing adjunct pay – and makes sure to point out that he’s a proud Columbia student -- but shares concern about the academic job market. About 80 percent of the $295 tuition for each class goes to Brooklyn Institute scholars, something he hopes will make it more feasible for instructors to teach and live in the city.

“I don’t think right now anyone could be fully employed with us,” he said, “but you can definitely be partially employed. If we can make that partial employment better, in conjunction with being an adjunct, that can make a scholarly life more possible.”

Chaudhary hopes to grow the project – registration is open for two summer courses and more are in the works – but he’s not sure where the Brooklyn Institute will be in two or five years.

That’s part of the fun, said Michael Brent, a fellow Columbia doctoral student and a fellow at the institute. As the Brooklyn Institute expands its reach, Brent believes there’s potential for adjuncts and graduate students elsewhere to develop similar projects that allow them to supplement their income and research budgets.

“What’s stopping you from starting your own kind of initiative and doing it yourself?” Brent said. “Why would you look to the current colleges and universities as necessarily your only future if you want to continue as a scholar and a researcher.”

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Mitch Smith

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