Last week, education startup Fluent City raised $2.5 million to relaunch and grow its class offerings. Lerner Investments led the round, joined by Learn Capital, New Ground Ventures and 1776. The New York City-based language company, founded in 2011, offers 10 language classes along with courses in interior design, mixing cocktails and French culture.
VentureBeat called it a place to “teach Brooklyn hipsters about French culture.” A Brooklyn news blog labeled it a “hip college for bougie adults.” But no matter what you call it, James Rohrbach, who came on board as CEO in 2014, says the goal of Fluent City is to “reinvigorate the liberal arts for our time.”
In an interview with EdSurge, Rohrbach explained how he sees the company as a way for people to keep enriching their lives. He calls it a sort of General Assembly for the liberal arts, providing people a casual, social place to learn a new language before their trips or how to deck out their apartments. So far some 20,000 students have signed up for classes across its four locations.
“I have this tremendous amount of frustration about the fact that the liberal arts has [degraded] over the past 10 years. The liberal arts were never meant to be mutually exclusive with vocational training,” Rohrbach says.
Scaling a culture school
Fluent City and its teachers use proprietary 200-page textbooks as guides for language classes offered at seven different levels. Blended learning is the way to go for them, Rohrbach says. “I kind of see [us] as the anti-Coursera,” he says. “You’re doing something for fun that makes you feel good, you want to be with other people. You don’t want to be by yourself in front of a computer.”
The challenge and competition is convincing people to come out to classes and events, rather than stay home and watch Netflix, he says. The company offers classes in Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. at the moment, but expect to see other cities on the list. Fluent City has 10 classrooms in its Brooklyn headquarters and rents spaces by the hour at its other locations.
“Where I want to be in, say, five years is not just in the major metros all over the world, but I’m also really passionate about serving smaller communities,” he tells EdSurge. “These are cities that don’t already have a glut of cultural richness.”
Rohrbach sees young people with disposable income and time come through Fluent City, but they also see retirees, Boomers and language enthusiasts sign up to teach and learn. Rohrbach calls their audience passionate lifelong learners, and the hope is Fluent City can somehow start a dialogue with people and groups outside of higher education that want to reform the liberal arts.
Looking outside of higher education
Fluent City’s growth and emphasis on the liberal arts comes at a time when STEM education has been generating a lot of buzz and funding. From teachers to CEOs and administrators to politicians, leaders of all sort have rallied around investing in STEM education in schools and beyond. Proponents trumpet how investing in STEM education now is investing in the country’s economic future.
Whereas projects like Fluent City, Kadenze or Big History Project try to build online and offline arts education alternatives, STEM education to the outside world might seem like it has gotten more attention than the arts in recent years.
Back in 2009, President Obama made a nationwide commitment to improve STEM education through more than $260 million in investments. At the same time, states, districts and organizations like Teach For America and Salesforce pour resources into backing STEM efforts, citing its high demand in the job market in coming years.