Culture  Street smarts

Pursuing lifelong learning at the University of the Streets Café

Is what I’m studying useful? The million-dollar question. Many of us will answer no, we don’t like the format or style of learning of postsecondary education. And yet, here we are. So is there really an alternative? I guess there’s nothing left to do but sit idly in class and sponge up and spit out the coagulated information taught to me. Maybe I’ll start learning something useful once I graduate and find a job. Sigh.

Okay, hold on. There have been countless times when I’ve felt stimulated and engaged, like I’d truly come close to touching the essence of life. A dinner table: food, wine, friends. A topic: language, death, liberty, Sarah Palin, the demise of Britney Spears, the media, James Bond. The question remains whether there is a way to combine a free-flowing and conversational style of learning with academia. Last week I partook in something that is an attempt to reconcile the two: The University of the Streets Café.

On the bus heading up Avenue du Parc, I wondered – okay, I know what going to university is like, but how does one prepare to go to a university of the streets? I walked into Arts Café, where the event was taking place, secretly hoping to find hobos, b-boys, and professors happily mingling, sharing hard-learned lessons about life, and maybe even shedding a tear or two over a cup of Irish Coffee. To my surprise, I found a group of normal-looking, middle-aged men and women, sitting around coffee tables and excitedly chatting about the night’s topic. The buzz of conversation and the smell of crisp, thin pizza permeated the air.

The University of the Streets Café is basically a two-hour discussion between random people at rotating cafés in Montreal. It’s a very casual and informal setting, in which anyone is welcome and everyone is a specialist – simply by virtue of being a human being engaged in society. Run by Concordia University’s Institute of Management and Community Development, the University of the Streets Café attempts to “create gathering places for community members to pursue lifelong learning and engagement in the form of collective discussions. They are an opportunity for people of diverse backgrounds and realities to meet, where all people and perspectives are welcome.”

The dialogue I participated in was entitled “Do we underestimate the importance of teen friendships?” Our discussion covered a variety of topics related to friendship, ranging from how the Internet is reshaping interpersonal relationships, to whether parents’ relationships with their kids can be “friendly,” and how friendships formed during childhood affect our adult lives. Several people talked about their experiences growing up in Colombia or on a commune. Others talked about being a friend to their kids, and others about having a sibling take on the role of parent to them. One man gave a very interesting perspective from First Peoples’ reservations, where he found that there isn’t a traditional hierarchical system of power relations between people.

Though the topic was interesting, I left the cafe feeling disappointed. I think the reason is that I came in looking for arguments, theories, nuggets of truth. But I should have read the flyer – “Probably the most important thing we learn is how to learn together…. At the end of almost any conversation what stands even more than the factual learning is how challenging and inspiring it is to learn with a group and make space for individuals who come at a topic with very different opinions, experience, and levels of expertise.” And that, I realize, is the beauty of non-academic learning.

Upcoming conversations on the topic of “Building a Culture of Sustainability” include “How do we begin to understand the issues?” (November 20, 7 p.m.) and “How do we put accountability into accounting?” (November 24, 7 p.m.) Check out the web site for locations and more information at