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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.

Universities should try to teach wisdom, not just knowledge

Students celebrating the festival of Holi at Visva Bharati in Santiniketan – the university set up by the poet Rabindranath Tagore in India.

Should a university provide a moral or spiritual education to its students? The idea seems ridiculous in the age of the mega-university. Universities today are enormous corporations, employing tens of thousands of academics and staff, with anything from 5000 to 30000 undergraduates studying there at any one time. The university is a microcosm of our multi-cultural society – there can be no one over-riding ethos in the ‘multi-university’.

Yet, while few believe universities should teach values, it’s increasingly accepted that they have an obligation to support students’ emotional well-being. Indeed, students now demand better counselling services in return for their tuition fees – demand for student counselling has gone up 50% in the last five years. There’s no sense that students’ emotions might be connected to their values, or that the so-called ‘well-being crisis’ on our campuses is in any sense a crisis of values. But I think that’s what it is. And it’s a microcosm of a wider crisis of values and meaning in our society.

It’s worth remembering that, for most of universities’ existence in the West, they had an explicitly Christian mission to shape the values of their students. ‘Wisdom’s special workshop’ was how Pope Gregory IX described universities in the early 13th century. The life of a student was, until the late 19th century, morally regulated – there was compulsory chapel, time given over each day for prayer and scripture, and a fairly strict moral code students were expected to adhere to. And it was quite easy for the university to act ‘in loco parentis’, because, until the 20th century, there would only be a few hundred students in a university at any one time.

In the mid-19th century, German universities began to develop the research-based university that we know today, with highly-trained specialists working on their particular area of research through departments, seminars and post-graduate doctorates. There was less of an emphasis on Christian dogma, and more on a commitment to scientific truth. But there was still a Romantic emphasis on ‘bildung’, or character-formation. As the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte rhapsodized in 1810: ‘The University is the institution…where each generation hands on its highest intellectual education to succeeding generations…[so that] the divine may appear in the human in fresh clearness’.

Through the influence of German academia, American and British universities became less explicitly Christian in the 19th century, but they retained the liberal Protestant idea that universities should try to develop virtuous citizens. This would take place not necessarily through prayer and theology, but rather through courses in moral philosophy or Great Books. There was a liberal faith that universities’ two principle aims – the pursuit of scientific truth and the development of good character – were in harmony, not conflict.

After the First World War, faith in both Christianity and scientific humanism took a battering. There was no longer an optimism that scientific progress necessarily led to moral progress or Christian faith. So to which of these did academics owe their allegiance?

The sociologist Max Weber, in a lecture of 1919 on ‘science as a vocation’, insisted that the proper allegiance of academia is to science, not religion or morality. He told undergraduates: ‘It is not the gift of grace of seers and prophets dispensing sacred values and revelations, nor does it partake of the contemplation of sages and philosophers about the meaning of the universe’.

The good academic, says Weber, should never impose their own view-point, ethical, religious or political, from the lectern. They should not be ‘petty prophets of the lecture-room’. They should not even try to be moral leaders. Instead, academic research and teaching should be utterly value-free, except for the supreme values of scientific rigour and intellectual integrity. Scientific research won’t necessarily improve general well-being – who thinks science leads to happiness apart from ‘big children in university chairs’? – but it will contribute to the great work of our time, namely the rationalization and disenchantment of modern society.

Here one notices a glaring inconsistency in Weber’s lecture, or should I say sermon. After insisting that academics should never impose their own moral view-point from the lectern, that is precisely what he does. The ‘fate of our times’ is disenchantment, he says, and those ‘who cannot bare the fate of our times’ should collapse ‘silently’ into ‘the arms of the old churches’ and leave the battlefield to the brave, like him.

In other words, the culture of modern academia is not really neutral and value-free. On the contrary, it is explicitly disenchanted, naturalist, positivist, materialist, and, in fact, atheist – the perspective of faith or religious experience is denigrated or excluded.

In the 20th century, universities went from being explicitly Christian institutions to being cultures in which there was an established culture of non-belief. Academics are far more likely to be atheist than the general public (see this, on faith among scientists). As the historian George Marsden has argued – perspectives of religious faith or religious experience are now largely excluded from the positivist culture of academic discourse. The 19th hegemony of Protestant rational religion in academia has turned into the contemporary hegemony of positivism.

Re-incorporating experience and wisdom

But something of the old moral mission still exists in American universities, particularly in the form of freshman courses in the ‘science of happiness’ or Positive Psychology. There are freshman courses in the science of happiness at Harvard (where it’s the most popular course in the history of the university); at Rutgers; at Berkeley; at NYU and elsewhere. Positive Psychology harkens back to the old liberal Protestant idea that science and humanist values can be harmonized – you can find a rational, empirical basis for being a good person. It is a science which incorporates people’s subjective experiences – experiences of happiness, life satisfaction, flow and meaning.

I really applaud these sorts of courses in Positive Psychology, but they’re not perfect. Like Positive Psychology in general, they tend to be quite scientistic – they insist you can measure everything important, from happiness to meaning, and anything you can’t measure (like, say, closeness to God) can be safely ignored. Although they incorporate subjective experiences, they’re still rather rationalistic and disenchanted, and can be closed off from ecstasy and the mystery of the transpersonal.

Positive Psychology also often ignores the role of ethics and debate, for example around such questions as ‘when is flow bad for you?’ or ‘what meanings in life are good meanings?’ and so on. I’ve just read U Thrive: How To Succeed in College (and Life) by Daniel Lerner and Alan Schlechter – they teach a popular course on the science of happiness at NYU. It doesn’t mention ethics once! The closest it gets is talking about the dangers of ‘obsessive passion’ or ‘junk flow’. And it lacks self-criticism – the authors never question their own perspective, they just relentlessly hype it, which is quite typical of Positive Psychology’s boosterism. It feels spiritually thin – the book is about thriving in life, but doesn’t mention death, or God, or even transcendence.

An outdoor class at the contemplative studies centre at Brown

What about mindfulness and ‘contemplative studies‘ – a growing field within many universities? Like Positive Psychology, contemplative studies balances research and practice, encouraging students to try out the methods it teaches for well-being. Like Positive Psychology, it incorporates first-person subjective perspectives (how does it feel, what is it like?). Like Positive Psychology, contemplative science can sometimes be rather scientistic, instrumental and lacking in ethical reflection. However, the better contemplative studies centres are genuinely interdisciplinary and include perspectives from the humanities.

There are also universities trying to explore and promote the practice of wisdom from the perspective of the humanities. There is the ‘centre for practical wisdom’ at Chicago, there are courses in Confucian wisdom and justice at Harvard, there is the Art of Living course at Stanford. There is also the ‘modern Stoicism’ project I’m involved with, which tries to marries theory and practice, science and humanities, empiricism and ethics. And there are still over 100 American universities that have ‘great books’ courses, although such courses became more controversial in the wake of post-modernism, post-colonialism and gender studies.

And then there are whole universities which take a more holistic approach to well-being and flourishing. There are Catholic universities in the US which still embrace a Thomistic or Aristotelian view that the goal of education is eudaimonia, or flourishing. General courses in philosophy and ethics are a standard part of the curricula in these institutions. There are also some graduate colleges dedicated to a spiritual view of education, such as Naropa College in Colorado, or Schumacher College in Dartington, or Santiniketan in Bengal.

I think British universities should follow American colleges’ lead, and start to offer courses in wisdom and flourishing, which are open to any undergraduates who want to attend, and which are also videoed. I would like to see courses that combine the empirical science around happiness with more open humanistic ethical discussions around questions like ‘what do we mean by flourishing exactly?’ These courses shouldn’t be outsourced to boring and not-very-smart well-being coaches, they should involve the best and brightest academics in the university.

Well-being and flourishing shouldn’t be something at the periphery of students’ learning journey – something you only think about if you break down. It should be at the heart of the learning journey.

American universities seem much better than British counterparts at offering courses in happiness or wisdom, probably because they allow students to take non-core courses in their first two years. British universities by contrast offer the occasional mindfulness course or well-being day, but nothing with much intellectual meat on the bone. It shouldn’t be too hard to offer such courses, though, and it would be a good selling point when competing with other universities for students’ money (besides being good for them!)

A modern course in wisdom would be eclectic – teaching not one moral philosophy but several. It could balance wisdom from ancient philosophies like Stoicism and Buddhism with research from psychotherapy or social science. It could encourage purposeful discussions in small groups, rather than simply drilling students in dogma. And it could encourage practice and self-experimentation – homework could be trying out a meditative technique for a few weeks, or trying to break a bad habit, or seeking out meaningful conversations, or volunteering for a local charity.

Humanities academics tend to dislike any focus on well-being, let alone ‘wisdom’, because it sounds conservative or neo-liberal to them. But a good course in wisdom would have plenty of room for critiques of particular definitions of well-being – perhaps the Stoic definition of flourishing is too individualist? Perhaps the Marxist definition defers happiness to some idealized utopian future?

In other words, a good course in wisdom would be genuinely pluralist, both politically and metaphysically.

The challenge is not to sacrifice free critical inquiry to dogma. There’s always a risk that universities pursuing wisdom fall prey to what critics call ‘medievalism’ – they end up quasi-religious institutions endlessly repeating received wisdom, rather than challenging it. Positive Psychology courses, for example, can be prescriptive, preachy and boring. There’s some evidence that academic researchers in mindfulness hid results where meditation didn’t seem to improve people’s health. They got culty. Brown University’s contemplative studies department, by contrast, has the guts to publish challenging results, like the result that mindfulness seems to work better for women than men, or that it can sometimes lead to difficult and distressing experiences. That’s how to balance the pursuit of wisdom with a commitment to free scientific inquiry.

Universities can be committed to the goal of encouraging flourishing, while recognizing that the paths to flourishing are several, and rarely run straight.

If you work in this area, and want to connect to our research group on well-being in higher education, please contact Jules Evans at j.evans@qmul.ac.uk