The Penny University

The coffeehouse was a place for like-minded scholars to congregate, to read, as well as to learn from and to debate with each other, but it was emphatically not a university institution, and the discourse there was of a far different order than any university tutorial. The coffeehouse thus occupied a social space distinct from those older centres of learning which were constrained by their dependence on church or state patronage as well as their stubborn ‘scholastic’ refusal to accept the methods and supplements offered by Bacon’s “new learning,” which were so dear to the virtuosi. By contrast, the coffeehouse offered an alternative space for the promotion of virtuosic interests.

From Brian Cowan’s The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse.

That ‘alternative space’ has always been important to those seeking an education beyond the narrowly scholastic. And of course, there have always been those, as there are today, who have sought to denigrate the value of such alternative spaces.

Anthony Wood, an Oxford scholar in the late 17th Century wrote that the discourse in the coffeehouses was:

.…fluently romantick nonsense, unintelligible gibberish, florishing lyes and nonsense.…

Today we have no shortage of dismal voices willing to shout from the rooftops about the ‘unintelligible gibberish’ that social media generate on a second-by-second basis, those small-minded and short-sighted people who are just as unwilling as Anthony Wood was more than 300 years ago to recognize the truly enlightening and transformative aspects of this technology we have today.

The coffee houses of the 17th and 18th centuries show us how important ‘alternative space’ can be in permitting and encouraging dialogue and learning beyond the formal and the institutional. Today we are building countless such alternative spaces on the Web and beyond, and I for one hope and believe that in education as in so many other spheres of life these alternative spaces will eventually subvert and then displace the fossilized and inflexible institutions of formal education across the world.