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Bars and Restaurants Around the Country Are Turning Into Classrooms

December 27, 2019, 2:00 PM UTC
Back to school...at the bar.
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The best activities bars once offered were pull tabs, pool tables, darts, and maybe the occasional pub trivia game. But in recent years, Americans have learned just how much more they can do while drinking.

First, there was the jock era: Everyone was throwing axes and smashing things in rage rooms. But now geek-chic is back at the bar, and around the country, the pub is becoming a classroom.

While pub trivia serves as a chance to show off knowledge, newer events represent the opposite: an opportunity to learn in a way that people rarely get as adults—from an expert, in an organized, directed fashion. For some, this might incite scary flashbacks to days at school. But there’s no test to take and no homework here: The only thing you need to remember to bring to class is some cash for beer.

This fall, Urban Elective launched the most intense version of the trend: six-week courses, two hours a week, hosted in local pubs. Most of the courses cost $129 for the term—though that doesn’t include the cost of whatever drinks you buy while you’re there. Its offerings for the inaugural quarter ranged from the seriously academic (e.g., Intro to Architecture & Urban Design) to the offbeat (the Art of Erotic Embroidery). But mostly, they teach useful life skills that aren’t necessarily something you could learn elsewhere, such as “How Not to Suck at Dating,” “Financial Badassery: How to Finally Get Your Finances in Shape,” and “How to Be Funny.”

But for bar goers who want to take a deep dive into a topic without quite that level of commitment, more expansive options exist. Raising the Bar, which launched in 2014 as a joint project sponsored by Columbia University and New York University, runs one-night events in cities around the world, with dozens of prominent professors giving lectures in bars around town. Subsequent events happened in Hong Kong, Sydney, and Auckland, New Zealand. Topics at the most recent event, in Melbourne in November, included career trajectories in e-sports, how we clean up the recycling crisis, and the downsides of human-centered design. In 2020, the event will return to San Francisco.

The five-year-old Astronomy on Tap program also began in New York, but these days it boasts events regularly in a handful of cities outside the tri-state area. As the name implies, events are focused on astronomy. But each one homes in on a specific topic, presented by two or more people currently working in the field. “We strive for a relaxed and informal atmosphere,” the website reads but also notes that “the booze helps,” which gets at the whole idea behind these types of events.

The somewhat older Nerd Nite uses a more communal system, allowing anyone to present at a monthly event featuring a few speakers on a variety of topics. Though it once flourished in multiple cities, the central website no longer shows which ones are active, so it’s only made clear by clicking through towns one by one. Austin, San Diego, Baltimore, and San Francisco, among others, still host events regularly, with speakers covering anything from whether urine is sanitary to the history of local cable cars.

But how has this particular setting become normalized? In 2017, interactive bar entertainment producer Buzztime posited that live events were growing in popularity. While they didn’t discuss classes specifically, they did note, “Guests are thirsty for knowledge: They want to either show off their smarts, or learn something new,” and that live events, like the other trends—ax-throwing or paint-and-sip nights—build around an experience, of which bar goers want more. Consulting firm Camoin 310 offers slightly more insight in its look into “nontraditional entertainment and recreation trends.”

Consumers have less time to spend on leisure activities, according to Camoin, so they have started looking outside traditional recreational venues—gyms, movie theaters, and so on—for entertainment. That seems to translate, too, to the idea of extracurricular learning. With less time to, say, enroll in a community college class or take a sewing class for fun, people have seized on the opportunity to combine learning with an all-time favorite leisure activity: drinking beer, wine, or cocktails.

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