Learning without obstacles

No qualifications but you still want to study? The “Socrates” project in Berlin, Vienna and Budapest makes it happen

A male and female student are standing in front of a house and talking. In the background, three young people are standing on the steps in front of a house entrance. There are several bicycles at the foot of the stairs.

The Socrates Program at Bard College Berlin offers classes for people who do not have formal qualifications

In an Athens agora (or marketplace) 2,000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Socrates devised a novel teaching method. Instead of lecturing, he discussed life’s most vital questions with his students. He believed that everyone holds the truth within themselves and can access it through self-knowledge. In a new project, three European universities adopt not just the philosopher’s method but also his name. The cooperation between Bard College in Berlin and the Central European University in Budapest and Vienna is called “Socrates”. They offer courses in humanities and social sciences where Socrates’s system of unrestricted discussion is applied. What makes them special is that the courses are free and aimed at adults who previously couldn’t go to school or college.

“Everybody who can think and discuss has the ability to study,” says Aaron Lambert, founder and head of the project. “That’s why we want to remove the obstacles that normally block entry to academic education.” For that reason, the teaching, course materials and childcare are free. There are no prerequisites for applying – you just have to be prepared to actively take part in discussions. Before you’re admitted, you have an interview.

The universities are members of the Open Society University Network, founded in 2020 by the American investor and philanthropist George Soros. The network is designed to bring together teaching and research activities from universities across the world by means of joint projects. As of this year, the Socrates project is being funded from the network’s resources.

“The courses are meant to bring together not just people of different ages but also with diverse backgrounds, languages and creeds.”

Lambert and his team used to work on a voluntary basis; it started as a pilot project in the Central European University in Budapest. The first 30 participants took two-month courses in philosophy, politics and literature. One of these was Ibrahim Hossein Mirzai. Now 21, he came to Budapest from Afghanistan in 2017. Ibrahim wanted to study and saw the courses as good preparation for university. But what he gained from it was so much more: for Ibrahim it was an immersion in the world of academia and an exchange between a diversity of people. What he found especially enriching was the age difference between the participants. “I learnt so much in the courses from people who were older than me,” he says. “People from different age groups don’t normally have so much to do with each other.”

The courses are meant to bring together not just people of different ages but also with diverse backgrounds, languages and creeds. “This diversity generates a really creative and productive discussion format and encourages a mix of perspectives,” says Aaron Lambert. “That also changes how people relate to each other.”

The first courses in Berlin began at Bard College in September, two given in German and two in English. Most remarkable is the age range of the nearly 40 participants: they’re between 22 and 80 years of age.

Translated by Scott Martingell