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'Universities Are Selling Salvation': Touring the New General Assembly Campus

Success will be when there's a Vows column with two people who met here.

Nellie Bowles

Jake Schwartz, the co-founder of coding school General Assembly, wore dress shoes, decorative bicycle socks and a herringbone blazer as he toured through his new San Francisco campus.

Nothing about him or his new space, one of the company’s 13 campuses, was particularly radical. The spare classrooms had rows of chairs facing a teacher. The lunch room had students eating out of Tupperware. They had a mildly ironic campus map hung by the door — it had little jokes on it like “mindwandering in this room,” but was, basically, just a map.

 The campus map
The campus map
Nellie Bowles

Where education startups like Coursera teach coding online, Schwartz and his team are building a small fiefdom of physical, minimalist campuses with retro classrooms and pseudo-university touches. Their campus-based approach directly targets traditional graduate school masters programs, which are typically cash cows for universities.

“We don’t use the word ‘university’ because it’s a little pretentious,” he said. “We want to make something a little more practical.”

 Chalk art
Chalk art
Nellie Bowles

Schwartz met me by the elevator and said he’d just had his favorite artist come and do chalk art throughout campus. He pointed out his redwoods vista in the common room, the Ferry Building on another wall.

We walked down the hallway, which was bustling. More than 600 students come through this one campus each day. He touched the retro, light-wood Prouvé school chairs — “aspirational and design-y and no fake materials,” he said.

 Inspirational quotes
Inspirational quotes
Nellie Bowles

“We’re talking about how to design the classroom of the future, but we’re still basically just a desk in a room,” the 36-year-old Schwartz said. “We’re not trying to change everything — we’re just trying to teach people something they can use.”

General Assembly started as a clubhouse and skill-share for New York startups in 2011, but soon there was demand for coding classes, and Schwartz and his co-founders expanded the clubhouse into a school. They started to draw students outside the startup world — middle-aged professionals who were changing careers, young English majors who needed to learn a marketable skill. He was in town to announce the new Singapore campus.

“As a school, we wanted all the students to feel that way,” he said and tapped on one of the hanging cement lamps. “Honest elements.”

He pulled out a tall metal stool and shook it a bit: “Utilitarian stools.”

 Common area
Common area
Nellie Bowles

We sat in adult-sized school chairs.

“Ever since we’ve been in existence, nobody gets it, but I don’t know how you serve your students if you don’t ever interact with them,” Schwartz said. “The social experience is why people come here.”

Nellie Bowles

We moved to some pods, intimate black nylon cocoons within which two sofas face each other. I went to take a portrait of him reclining in his pod and he straightened up — “I’m supposed to start looking like a CEO,” he said, laughing.

“Success will be when there’s a Vows column with two people who met here,” he said. “That’s my dream. That’s community.”

He said universities have been intentionally slow to teach practical skills. On this he was animated.

“There’s something religious about it — when we think of college, we think robes, gothic — like a church. These diplomas look like indulgences,” he said. “Universities are selling salvation in way more of a symbolic than actual way.”

 Cement lamps
Cement lamps
Nellie Bowles

The revolution is coming, though.

“But like the Reformation, it will take a long time,” he said.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.