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What UK universities can learn from the US about promoting well-being

A diagram from Donald Harward on the purposes of higher education

 

As regular readers will know, I’ve begun a new research focus, looking at well-being in higher education. British universities have started to focus on this issue a lot more, spurred by worrying headlines about an ‘epidemic of mental illness on campus’. But, judging by the events I’ve attended so far, universities don’t yet get the complexity of this issue, and see it simply in terms of increasing funding for counselling.

This last week, I came across a collection of essays – Well-Being and Higher Education: A Strategy for Change and the Realization of Education’s Greater Purposes – by a group of American academics. It suggests to me that the US is way beyond the UK in its thinking on this topic.

First, the authors take well-being seriously as a core purpose of higher education, rather than something one farms out to counselling services at the campus periphery. Secondly, they understand the importance of knowing the history of higher education as you try to re-frame its purpose. Third, they recognize the philosophical complexity of defining and measuring well-being. And fourth, they’re prepared to try out innovative interventions. British universities are way behind on all four of these issues.

  1. Taking well-being seriously as a core purpose of higher education

The collection begins with an essay by the editor, Donald Harward, a philosopher who was president of Bates College and now heads up an institute called Bringing Theory to Practice. He called for American higher education to ‘recognize well-being as an inextricable, but not sole, dimension of higher education’s greater purpose’. 

Other American universities have embraced well-being as part of their mission. In 2013, Georgetown University President John DeGioia described the university’s responsibility to our students as the following: “Our explicit way of supporting young people engaged in the most important work in which they can be engaged: learning to know themselves and identifying the conditions that will provide for an authentic, flourishing life.”

The same year, George Mason University included well-being as one of twelve strategic goals in its 2015-2025 strategic plan. Nance Lucas and Paul Rogers from George Mason write: ‘Our vision at George Mason University is to become a model “well-being university”—a place at which students, faculty, and staff learn what it means to have lives well-lived and how to respond well to a full range of emotions and challenges.’ Note that George Mason seeks to promote not just student well-being, but the well-being of faculty, staff and the wider community. 

Several other senior American academics put forward well-being, flourishing or virtue as a core purpose of higher education in the collection. In British universities, by contrast, one rarely hears well-being, flourishing, purpose or virtue mentioned as a central purpose of higher education.

2. It’s important to know the history of higher education if you want to re-frame its purpose

The authors in the collection understand the importance of knowing the history of higher education if you want to re-frame its purpose. As Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, writes: ‘Lacking historical perspective, one cannot even be sure whether “new” proposals are truly new or merely nostrums that have been trotted out before with disappointing results.’

It’s important to understand that universities’ focus on well-being is not an entirely new thing, that universities have focused on character and well-being before in their 2500-year history. In fact, the primary aim of universities until the mid-19th century was explicitly to ‘discipline the mind and build the character of students’ (Bok again). But it wasn’t exactly a golden age of education. Bok writes

Until the Civil War, colleges in the United States were linked to religious bodies and resembled finishing schools more closely than institutions of advanced education. Student behavior was closely regulated both inside and outside the classroom, and teachers spent much of their time enforcing regulations and punishing transgressors. Rules of behavior were written in exquisite detail. Columbia’s officials took two full pages merely to describe the proper forms of behavior during compulsory chapel. Yale turned “Sabbath Profanation, active disbelief in the authenticity of the Bible, and extravagant [personal] expenditures” into campus crimes…

Most courses were prescribed in a curriculum that usually included mathematics, logic, English, and classics, with a heavy dose of Latin and Greek. In a typical class, students recited passages from an ancient text under the critical eye of the instructor. Although many colleges offered courses in the sciences, such as astronomy or botany, classes were taught more often by invoking Aristotle and other authorities than by describing experiments and the scientific method. By most accounts, the formal education was sterile.

As a culminating experience, most colleges prior to the Civil War offered a mandatory course for seniors on issues of moral philosophy, often taught by the president himself. Ranging over ethical principles, history, politics, and such issues of the day as immigration, slavery, and freedom of the press, this capstone course served multiple objectives. It set forth precepts of ethical behavior, it prepared students for civic responsibility, and it brought together knowledge from several fields of learning. For many students, it was the high point of an otherwise dull and stultifying education.

The purposes of higher education then gradually changed. In the mid-19th century, American universities followed German counterparts in focusing more on research and PhDs, and launching institutions like Johns Hopkins that were purely research-focused. By the early 20th century, most Protestant universities no longer had enforced chapel or Bible study. But many still tried to form the character of their students through compulsory courses in moral education or Great Books. That idea – of giving students a taste of the best of western culture, giving them an opportunity to form a life-philosophy – has never entirely gone away in American universities, and many still offer courses in Great Books.

However, the popularity of this sort of liberal education has been eroded by three things. Firstly, since the 1960s, the percentage of the population going to college has risen from around 5% to around 40%. University populations have become much more diverse – attracting more women, ethnic minorities and international students. And it’s become more expensive. Students have become more pragmatic in what they want from a college education – Derek Bok notes that ‘since 1970, the percentage of freshmen who rate “being very well off financially” as an “essential” or “very important” goal has risen from 36.2 to 73.6%, while the percentage who attach similar importance to “acquiring a meaningful philosophy of life” has fallen from 79 to 39.6%.’  With a much more diverse student body, a ‘wisdom curriculum’ mainly or entirely constituted of Dead White Men has come to be seen as problematic.

3) Defining and measuring well-being is philosophically complex

Because of growing concerns about the value of mass higher education, university bosses have increasingly looked for ways to define and measure success, to prove they’re succeeding. Bok notes:

The more objective and measurable the goals, the more attractive they will seem to those in charge. As a result, presidents and trustees frequently look to such tangible signs of progress as growth in the size of the endowment, or gains in the average SAT or ACT scores, or new buildings built and new programs begun. Such achievements do not necessarily reflect genuine improvement in teaching, learning and research. But in the absence of better measures, they seem to offer concrete evidence of forward movement and success.

For example, a commission set up by President Obama defined success based on graduation rates and the earnings of graduates. In the UK, notoriously, Gordon Brown’s government tried to measure universities’ success at achieving ‘impact’ on society, while the present government is attempting to measure teaching excellence. None of these measurements are entirely satisfactory, and the Research Excellence Framework introduced by Brown seems to be actively harmful. As Bok notes: ‘Some of the essential aspects of academic institutions – in particular, the quality of the education they provide – are largely intangible and their results are difficult to measure.The result is that much of what is most important to the work of colleges and universities may be neglected, undervalued or laid aside in the pursuit of more visible goals.’

If well-being is embraced as a core purpose by universities, how will it be defined, and can it be measured? This is not a simple question. In the UK, for example, the debate (one might say furore) over campus well-being is driven by frightening but somewhat meaningless statistics, like the NUS survey that showed 78% of students experienced mental health issues. That sounds terrifying, but those issues could be everything from a panic attack to a hangover to a full-blown psychotic episode.

The authors of Well-Being in Higher Education at least seem to understand this is not a simple issue. In fact, several different definitions of well-being are put forward – hedonic well-being (ie feeling good); eudaimonic well-being (defined by Carol Ryff as ‘purpose in life, environment mastery, positive relationships, autonomy, personal growth and self-acceptance); thriving (defined as ‘engaged learning, social connectedness, diverse citizenship and positive perspective’.

There is a recognition that well-being – if defined in an Aristotelian or eudaimonic sense – will probably involve teaching character virtues. Derek Bok suggests developing character is one of the central roles of a university. Barry Schwartz suggests universities should teach the ‘intellectual virtues’: love of truth, honesty, fair-mindedness, humility, perseverance, courage, good listening, perspective taking, empathy, and above all, wisdom, which Schwartz suggests is the ‘master-virtue’. (By the by, the Oxford philosopher Nigel Biggar has also suggested that a central purpose of universities is to teach intellectual and social virtues). Alexander Astin notes that university seems to improve students’ spirituality, and in particular their capacity for the virtue of equanimity – a key virtue in Buddhism and Stoicism. He notes: 

As part a recent national study of college students’ spiritual development, we devised measures of five spiritual qualities, one of which seems especially pertinent to well-being. We call it equanimity. Students with high equanimity scores say they are able to and meaning in times of hardship, feel at peace, see each day as a gift, and feel good about the direction of their lives. Equanimity actually shows positive growth during the college years. Equanimity is most likely to show positive growth when students participate in charitable activities (service learning, donating money to charity, helping friends with personal problems) or when they engage in contemplative practices (meditation, prayer, reflective writing, reading sacred texts). 

Clearly, there are multiple ways universities can define and measure well-being: happiness, freedom from anxiety, purpose in life, equanimity, belonging, connectedness, social conscience and so on. Not all of these are measurable, and those that are might not always be a good guide to success: a university might have a high sense of student belonging because it does not have a very diverse student body. It may be worth measuring multiple factors – as the Healthy Minds survey does – and then using them as helpful tools rather than rigid benchmarks.

4) Innovative interventions 

Finally, the authors in the collection suggest several innovative ways to enhance well-being in universities. In the UK, universities tend to see well-being just as a mental health issue, to be approached through counselling, peer-to-peer training or technology. That’s such a narrow and instrumental way to view it. American universities, perhaps because of their history of liberal arts education, have a much broader and more intellectually-interesting way of approaching it. Several universities offer courses in Positive Psychology, for example, or contemplative studies, or Great Books courses, or courses in moral philosophy or ‘the art of living’ – such general curriculum courses barely exist in UK universities.

Other interventions discussed in the book include:

Engelhard courses at Georgetown University: as part of its commitment to well-being, the university seeks to include modules related to well-being in several different curricula, from biology to history. Riley and Elmendorf write: ‘In foundations of biology, students are required to write a research paper in which students explore the genetic and environmental bases of a mental families and friends directly, so in our predominantly 18–19 year-old population, we often see papers on addiction, depression, anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity literature and leverage their nascent knowledge of foundational molecular, genetic, and during face-to-face time in the course and in an online environment. Collectively, the Engelhard project has reached 15,126 students in 358 courses over the ten-year period of 2005 to 2015. More than one-third of our first year students take Engelhard courses

Well-being courses involving the sciences and humanities: James Pawelski, a professor in Positive Psychology at Penn University, notes that well-being can be explored and promoted using both the social sciences and the humanities. He notes, for example, that CBT techniques could be taught with reference to Stoic philosophy (something I’ve taught for the last few years), and that flourishing could be taught through literary studies (he co-authored a book on the ‘eudaimonic turn’ in literary studies). Courses in contemplation can also combine both the sciences (the science of mindfulness) with the humanities (the culture and ethics of Buddhism, for example)

Contemplative studies: Mark Edmundson suggests higher education should promote the virtues of ‘courage, contemplation and compassion’, through such contemplative practices as reflective writing, deep reading, quietness, meditation and poetry.

Volunteering and social work: the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) has a programme called LEAP, which aims to help students’ development through initiatives like ‘service and community-based learning’. I’ll write in the next few days about a similar project in some UK universities, called ‘Open Minds’, where medical and psychology students deliver mental health education in local schools.

Focus on mentoring and relationships: the key finding of a recent study, How College Works by Daniel Chambliss and Christopher Takacs, is that relationships matter more to student thriving than curricula:

At a liberal arts college in New York, the authors followed a cluster of nearly one hundred students over a span of eight years. The curricular and technological innovations beloved by administrators mattered much less than the professors and peers whom students met, especially early on. At every turning point in students’ undergraduate lives, it was the people, not the programs, that proved critical. Great teachers were more important than the topics studied, and even a small number of good friendships—two or three—made a significant difference academically as well as socially.

Barry Schwartz also thinks the intellectual virtues are best passed on to students through relationships, particularly through emulation and modelling: ‘We are always modeling. And the students are always watching. We need to do it better. A good start would be to do it deliberately and not by accident.’

There is so much more one could consider if well-being is taken seriously by universities: the importance of sports, of the aesthetics of a campus, of having places of beauty and quiet to enhance reflection, of marking development with rites of passage. Not to mention the fierce debates over feelings of belonging and safety for women, ethnic minorities, trans students, or white working-class male students (a minority particularly badly-served by British universities).

But this collection shows, encouragingly, that American universities are taking well-being seriously, understanding the historical and philosophical complexity of the issue, and thinking about constructive ways to promote it. We in British universities can learn a lot from their experiences.

The ethical and the numinous in psychedelic culture

I’ve spent the last two days at Breaking Convention, a conference on psychedelics at the University of Greenwich organized by some brave academics. It’s my favourite academic conference, by a long stretch.

Academic conferences are typically uptight, dull, low-energy events, driven largely by ambition, fear, awkwardness and resentment. Breaking Convention isn’t like that at all, it’s a warm, friendly, freaky place, that brings together chemists, neuroscientists, therapists, artists, historians, philosophers, shaman, witches, performance artists, and a lot of DIY psychonauts. There’s some great critical research there, but it’s also totally fine to discuss your own weird experiences – they’re also valid data. And there’s a healthy pluralism of philosophical viewpoints, from naturalist to animist. That’s totally different from the exclusive naturalism of most academic conferences.

When I attended the previous Breaking Convention in 2015, psychedelics looked on the verge of going primetime. We heard reports from scientists at institutions like NYU, Imperial College and Johns Hopkins of the remarkable therapeutic benefits of psychedelics: just one or two doses of psilocybin (the drug in magic mushrooms) helped 60% of participants in a small trial to overcome chronic depression; as well as 80% of participants in another trial to give up smoking. Psychedelics also significantly lowered death-anxiety in people with serious cancer, apparently by triggering a ‘mystical experience’.

In the two years since then, I’ve been struck by how positive media coverage is of psychedelic therapy, even in the right-wing media. There have been enthusiastic articles in the Daily Mail, the Express, the Telegraph, and even a segment on micro-dosing on BBC daytime TV show, Victoria. If psychedelics really do help people overcome depression, anxiety, addiction and the fear of death (and they do), then it seems only a matter of time before they’re legal, and available as a therapeutic treatment through the NHS.

I remember Rick Doblin, head of the psychedelic research organisation MAPS, saying in 2015 that psychedelics needed to stop being a transgressive counterculture and go mainstream. Less hippy freaks, more soccer moms. Well, microdosing for emotional healing is likely to be the way that happens. With careful microdosing, your reality is barely altered, you don’t even get any visuals, but the psychedelics apparently still have an emotional or neuro-chemical effect at the subliminal level. Look at the citizen science movement in the US to legalize microdosing for cluster headaches – they don’t want a revolution, they just want to stop having awful headaches (preferably paid for by medical insurance). 

Keeping it weird

Yet what struck me most, during this Breaking Convention, was an anxiety about what might be lost if / when psychedelics are legalized and go mainstream. While there were sessions on new therapeutic trials of psychedelics, the main emphasis seemed to be on ‘keeping it weird’ – to quote the title of one session. I mean, look at the conference poster – this is not a movement rushing into the mainstream.

At one presentation, religious studies scholar Erik Davis said he wanted to resist the instrumentalization and medicalization of psychedelics. He liked the psychedelic counterculture – its weirdness, its trashiness, its transgressiveness. The audience – a motley crew of thai-dye freaks and feathered urban shaman – cheered their support. They’re a guerrilla movement not ready to come out of the jungle.

Next to him, Dennis McKenna – ethnobotanist and brother of famous psychedelic guru Terence McKenna – told the story of a legendary psychedelic trip his brother and he undertook in their 20s, when they munched a huge amount of magic mushrooms in Colombia. Dennis disappeared for 14 days, ‘dislocated in the space-time continuum’, while his brother witnessed a giant UFO landing and spent the next decades of his life trying to construct a magic box which neither he nor anyone else fully understood. The psychedelic counter-culture loves this sort of weird tale, which eludes easy classification.

Psychedelic studies at the moment remind me of 17th-century natural philosophy, with its love of ‘strange facts’. As historians Lorraine Dalston and Katherine Park explored in Wonders and the Order of Nature, there was a moment in the 17th century, when natural philosophers circulated accounts of anomalous events – weird animals, odd astronomical events, freaky experiments with electricity – partly as a means of chipping away at the hegemony of the Aristotelian worldview, and partly just for fun. But then, in the 18th century, these anomalous incidents become subsumed into the new consensus of materialism. Wonder and a yearning for the freaky came to be seen as vulgar.

Likewise, many psychedelic explorers are fascinated by the weird and marvellous. But eventually, either psychedelics will become absorbed into the existing secular materialist medical paradigm or – more likely – a new paradigm will emerge, a new consensus on reality, with its own rules and enforcers. What could that new paradigm be? What theology or ethics could emerge from the psychedelic renaissance?

The most obvious way psychedelic therapy is likely to change our worldview is by changing our idea of the self. You can either dismiss all psychedelic visions as meaningless, or you can interpret them as messages from some sort of Jungian or Jamesian subconscious. As Jung said, the subconscious seems to communicate to us through symbolic imagery. Trips are often healing – some intelligence in the subconscious wants to guide us to wholeness. The mainstreaming of psychedelics is also likely to underline the interconnectedness between the mind and the body, particularly the subconscious mind and the autonomic nervous system.

But what about the interconnectedness of our mind with others’ minds, with the natural world, with the cosmos? What about people’s encounters with spirit-beings? 

As Tamara Freimoser and Elena Fountoglou have found, around 50% of people who take ayahuasca report ‘encounters with supra-human spiritual entities’, as well as 36% of people on DMT, 12% on psilocybin, 17% on LSD. Often, these encounters are healing – psychedelic trips seem to lower death-anxiety in patients with cancer because they report an encounter with some sort of ‘higher power’ which makes them believe materialism isn’t the whole story and death isn’t necessarily the end. The animist aspects of psychedelics are sometimes fundamental to the healing experience (though not always).

But not all encounters with spirit-beings are pleasant. According to the ‘global ayahuasca project’, which has interviewed around 1600 people who’ve taken ayahuasca, around 20% report the feeling of being under spiritual attack. In Rick Strassman’s famous DMT experiment, participants reported encounters with weird alien creatures who probed, devoured and even raped them.

Are these experiences projections from the individual subconscious, or encounters with something real and transpersonal – a collective unconscious, the spirits of nature, ancestor-spirits, cosmic consciousness, aliens, Whatever? Who the hell knows. Strassman himself has now returned to Judaism and insists we need to learn the discernment of spirits to protect ourselves against malevolent spirit entities.

This is the trickiest issue for psychedelics as they go mainstream. On the one hand, psychedelics are very healing, and who’s not up for healing?  On the other hand, they sometimes involve spirit-encounters, and spirits are just…well…verboten in the existing secular materialist paradigm of medicine.

I would suggest that we, as a culture, don’t get too hung up on the freaky. Weird things happen on trips, as they do on meditation retreats, pilgrimages, near-death experiences, and in ordinary life. You may encounter spirit-beings and not be entirely sure if they’re projections or independent entities. You can get lost down that rabbit hole. The main thing is to try and become a wiser and more loving being. That’s harder, and superficially less interesting, but more meaningful and valuable in the long-run. Maybe a personal encounter with Jesus Christ has hugely helped you to become a wiser and more loving person – that’s awesome. But I don’t think it’s essential. 

As the religious scholar Rudolph Otto said, every religion needs to find a balance between the numinous (ie religious or mystical experiences) and the ethical. You shouldn’t exclude the numinous, but neither should you obsess over it and forget the ethical. The great theologian Huston Smith, who took psychedelics with Timothy Leary and was sympathetic to psychedelics, nonetheless warned:

A religion made up solely of heightened religious experiences would not be a religion at all…. The major religious traditions address the mysteries (with or without entheogens), but they have other business to do: widen understanding, give meaning, provide solace, promote loving-kindness, and connect human being to human being. This is my litmus test for any mental experience however induced: does it enhance your whole life, and then do you in turn enhance the lives of others?

Psychedelic culture needs to find a balance between numinous experiences like the McKennas’ UFO encounters, and more basic ethical tasks – how to help people, how to make them more open, loving and wise. ‘Traits, not states’, insisted Huston Smith. Don’t get hung up on seeking altered states for their own sake. Seek altered traits – are you becoming a kinder and wiser person? Psychedelics can help with that (there’s some evidence they help make people more open and more reverential to nature, for example), but so can many other less dramatic spiritual practices like meditation, prayer, volunteering.

On the way to Breaking Convention, I listened to this great interview by Russell Brand with Sharon Salzberg, a leading Western practitioner of loving-kindness meditation (you can download it on iTunes here). I love Salzberg’s pragmatic worldview – she doesn’t exclude the supernatural, but she doesn’t obsess over it. Brand constantly tests the limits of her worldview – does she believe in reincarnation? Yes. Does she believe in God?  She notes how the Buddha remained silent on this question, suggesting that – whether there is a God / higher power or not, the human task remains the same of developing our consciousness and trying to become wiser and kinder beings, rather than getting stuck in disputes about whose God is better.

What about weird ‘siddhis’ or powers like telepathy or bilocation, which some holy people supposedly develop. Does she have any weird powers? No. Has she met holy people who do? Yes, but so what. ‘If you really want to, you can learn to read minds, but it’s not a path of wisdom, it’s a path of power. I had a woman teacher, my most important teacher. She came to practice after losing her husband and two children. The doctor said to her you’ll die of a broken heart unless you learn to meditate. So she went to the temple to learn to meditate. When she emerged, she was so compassionate and loving. She was radiant. They say she had powers. They say she could bake a potato in her hands. But so what? When I think of her I don’t think of that. I don’t care. She’s the person who was loving to everyone.’

I think there probably are spirit-beings ‘out there’, but I don’t think we should obsess over them. And attempts to describe God / the higher power are just attempts, we shouldn’t get hung up on our imperfect verbal definitions, much less attack others for their different definitions. The main task facing homo sapiens is to become wiser and more loving beings. That’s the North Star we need to stay focused on. The weird is fun but it’s not the main event.