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Adult education

Sir Anthony Seldon: Universities can help form free adults

This week I took the train out to Milton Keynes, then a taxi through the golden fields of Buckinghamshire to the University of Buckingham, where Sir Anthony Seldon recently became vice-chancellor. He was previously headmaster of Wellington School, where he became prominent for his advocacy of happiness classes. Now, he has brought that vision to higher education, outlining his plan to make Buckingham ‘Europe’s first positive university’.

What does that mean? Well, you can listen to our conversation through this podcast. In brief, it’s a holistic vision that includes various measures, from mentoring to mindfulness. The most eye-catching is the introduction of classes in Positive Psychology for all students and staff.

I met the head of psychology, Dr Alan Martin, who has been given this task by Anthony. Imagine – you’re the head of faculty in the UK’s smallest university, your speciality is children’s understanding of science, when a new vice-chancellor arrives and calls you in for a meeting. ‘I’d like to introduce classes in Positive Psychology. For everyone’. ‘All psychology students?’ ‘No, everyone.’

In that first meeting with Alan, Anthony called up Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology, and booked him in as a consultant. Suddenly, Alan is thrust into the fabulously-funded world of Positive Psychology,  the cultish conferences at Penn, the sermons from Seligman, the endless well-being questionnaires. And he is the European apostle – go forth, and make Buckingham flourish. It’s the stuff of David Lodge novels.

His task is made slightly easier by the fact Buckingham only has 2500 undergraduates, and it already has the highest scores for student satisfaction in the UK, thanks to its low student-to-teacher ratio and tutorial system. But it’s still quite a shift in culture for the university – it was founded in the 1970s by two neoliberal wonks from the Thatcherite Institute of Economic Affairs, and opened by the Iron Lady herself, as a way to challenge state control of universities. The previous vice-chancellor was a grumpy libertarian who didn’t believe in staff training. 

Seldon, by contrast, has a much more paternalist vision of the university. The part of our conversation that most struck me  – have a listen yourself on the podcast – is where Anthony says: ‘Universities are helping people to be free. You can’t assume that people suddenly morph from dependent teenagers to autonomous adults over the summer holidays.’  He adds:

This is about liberating but not infantilizing people. Liberty is not license. If you let 18-year-olds without any guidance have lots of money and access to whatever they want to do, without guidance, then it would be a recipe for disaster in some people’s cases. We’re here to try and help people learn how to be free. Many adults aren’t free. I’ve never met an alcoholic who’s free, I’ve never met a sex addict who’s free. I’m sure they were all given huge license to indulge themselves, but life is not about indulgence, indulgence is enslavement.

Cardinal Newman

He quotes Jean-Jacques Rousseau, about the state helping people to be free (or forcing them, rather – Seldon says ‘ there’s a place for coercion in education’) but the educator he really reminds me of is Cardinal John Henry Newman, the 19th-century Catholic thinker and rector of the Catholic University in Dublin. He wrote The Idea of a University, which is the classic defence of the liberal arts model of education, ie the idea that universities shouldn’t just teach vocations but also the intellectual, social and spiritual virtues.

Newman, like Seldon, saw universities as pastors shepherding students to autonomous adulthood. Newman thought that ‘a Tutor was not a mere academical Policeman, or Constable, but a moral and religious guardian of the youths committed to him’. He also thought peer-to-peer education was key – students really mould each other through what Newman called the ‘genius loci’, or ‘spirit-of-the-place’ (through sports, clubs, arts groups, and so on). 

Paul Shrimpton, author of a recent book on Newman’s vision for higher education, writes: ‘Throughout his life Newman was preoccupied with the ‘problem’ of human freedom, and in particular how it played out in a person’s formative years. In all his educational ventures he grappled with how best to negotiate that delicate and gradual process of launching the young person into the world, how to pitch demands and expectations with just that right mixture of freedom and restraint.’

Seldon clearly thinks universities are more in loco parentis than most British universities currently are – his vision is closer to the American liberal arts model, where of course 18-year-olds are still legally minors. I wonder how this vision will go down in the UK. As we emerged from dinner, Anthony greeted three Buckingham students wandering down the village street, pints in hand. ‘Good evening, how are you!’ he beamed. The students seemed startled by running into their new vice-chancellor. ‘We were just discussing student drinking!’ he said. ‘We…er….just came second in the pub quiz’, one of the students responded, while the other two lurked in the background.

Maybe some will find his vision creepy. I’m sure many sullen British academics will say his project is really turning out cheerleaders for neo-liberalism, and that students should actually be taught to be angry at the injustices of global capitalism.  But it must be possible to have an education that both wakes us up to the sometimes harsh reality of life on this planet and also gives us the confidence, equanimity and inner strength to believe we can improve that reality.  Is this not what, say, Martha Nussbaum advocates in her defence of the liberal arts? 

Personally, I wish I’d had a tutor like Anthony at university. He’s an unusual chap, no mistake. On the one hand, a political operator, well-connected, not shy of publicity, who’s written biographies of four prime ministers. On the other hand, a deeply spiritual person who talks of transcending the ego, with whom one can discuss anything from yoga to Gurdjieff.

He greeted me at his cottage and then went off to meditate, and he went off to meditate again after my talk. In between, we sat in his living room with assorted students and staff, for what he called a ‘fireside chat’. ‘Who’s watching Love Island?’ he asked the startled cohorts, who seemed unsure whether to admit such a vice. He has a habit of firing questions at people. ‘What’s your greatest fear?’ he asked me at dinner. ‘When was the last time you took drugs?’ he asked at the fireside chat. ‘About a month ago”, I said. ‘A microdose of psilocybin for therapeutic purposes.’ Well, Anthony, you did ask!

If you want to hear highlights of our conversation, click here

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