I spent three months this year in the Winter 2013 batch of Hacker School. Below are some thoughts on what the organization is — since the name is misleading, to say the least — excerpted from my feedback to the organization. (In an earlier post I’ve mentioned the fact that “hacker” has a far more noxious meaning in the press and at large that it does among programmers, but never mind that now.)
It’s not actually a school at all, except in the sense that being in it was a lot like graduate school (I wrote a blog post about that). But what it *is* is less easy to say.
“Retreat” is used on the website’s “about” page, along with “immersive school”. These are not bad, but I don’t think either one exhausts the meaning of the experience, not with eloquence anyway. It seems to me that the problem with “retreat” is that there isn’t really removal, either physical or mental, from the rest of the world. “School” strongly suggests a curriculum or program, which of course there isn’t. Even if students set their own programs, that isn’t a school — it’s an arena for self-study, a different thing in essential features. Oh, go ahead and use “school” if you need to for other purposes, but in plain truth the word doesn’t fit comfortably.
I’ve used “dojo” to describe the physical place where the batch meets. That’s good because it suggests the self-cultivation that is such an explicit part of Japanese training in all the traditional arts. But it’s bad because a dojo is always associated with a sensei, one sensei who is part of a tradition (even if it is the venerable tradition of standing apart from tradition), and not only do we have no sensei in that strict sense, we also have no sect or “school” or tradition in the intellectual aspect of the word. Similarly, a friend who lived some time among Jesuits said of my description of Hacker School that “it sounds like life at a monastery” — let’s not say anything about celibacy, but Hacker School fails to meet the definition because there is no abbot and no order (in the sense of a religious ideology or theological affiliation). And as with “retreat”, the word fails because we are not cloistered here. If Hacker School has any ideology, it is that of the rain forest-like chaos of the hacking world at large. Dojo and monastery, both of which involve adherence to hierarchical rules, are not the right names for a place that encourages this state of things.
“Collaborative studio” might do to describe Hacker School. “Gymnasium” also might do. Neither requires a sensei or abbot figure, and each suggests a place where people can work, independently or together, at training themselves or producing work that depends on discipline or reflective exertion or craftsmanship. That seems to me the essential point. I recommend those two expressions, then, to describe Hacker School.
“Collaborative studio” and “gymnasium” are what I say now, describing Hacker School when I talk to people who understand about self-cultivation. When forced to talk to grown-ups, I have been describing Hacker School as a tech recruitment company that offers unpaid training-internships.