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Adult education

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

Literature and mental health

Jonathan Bate and Paula Byrne
Jonathan Bate and Paula Byrne

On Monday, a new free online course is starting, exploring the mental health benefits of literature (you can sign up here). It’s made by the author Paula Byrne and her husband, literary academic Jonathan Bate, and features interviews with Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry, Melveyn Bragg and others, about how poetry has helped them through difficult times. Paula and Jonathan have also launched a new book, Stressed, Unstressed: Classic Poems To Ease the Mind, and a bibliotherapy charity, Re:Lit. I headed to my alma mater, Worcester College at Oxford, where Jonathan is provost, to ask Paula about the project.

JE: What inspired you to do this?

PB: Our daughter sadly and unexpectedly lost her kidneys when she was five. She was rushed to hospital, and we had this awful conversation – ‘your daughter’s probably not going to survive the night’. What do you read when your world is completely and unexpectedly tilted. I was conscious that there was nothing to read when you’re on your own in such a terrible night. In fact, I had a poem in my bag, coincidentally. I read it and felt it very much got me and her through the night. I’d been fermenting the idea of what one reads in hospitals – having spent a lot of time in them, I don’t want to read Hello magazine, particularly not a back-dated one from two years ago. What is there to read when you’re worried, anxious, waiting for an operation, and feeling the dearth of nutritious literature.

What was the poem?

It was actually a prayer by Julian of Norwich – ‘all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’. I just kept saying it as a sort of mantra. I felt there was something very important about holding on to words when there are no words, and someone else gives you the words you can’t find.

Is your daughter OK now?

Yes she pulled through, bless her. She then went on to have a transplant and she’s six foot now. Touch wood she’s doing very well. But we’ve obviously spent a lot of time in waiting rooms where there hasn’t been any literature, and it’s just been frazzled parents and frazzled children. Your stress levels go through the roof. The other thing that made me think of this project was that I had very bad stress, because of my daughter’s illness but also overwork, and it manifested itself as pain in my hands. Having ignored it for so long, I finally went along to my GP and said I have this terrible pain in my hands, I think it’s something horrible. He just said, it’s stress. I said, but it hurts. He said yeah, stress really can hurt. I said, so what do I do? He said, I’m going to give you a prescription. I’m going to prescribe you a book. And he prescribed me some haikus. The pain completely went away. And I thought, there’s something in this, and if more GPs and medical professionals had a creative approach to stress, maybe poetry could be something in the tool-kit that helps some people. I did research into bibliotherapy, and realized poetry has been used in eastern and western cultures for thousands of years – Aeschylus said ‘words are the physicians of a mind diseased’. So I decided to start a bibliotherapy charity.

How is poetry therapeutic?

How it works for me is a form of curious alchemy. I think it’s repetition, it’s very soothing, there’s something reassuring about repetition and rhyme. Coleridge said poetry is the best spoken words in the best order. Sometimes when you feel stressed you can’t find the words yourself, and you feel very alone. In all the research I’ve been doing for this online course, the refrain over and over again is ‘I thought it was just me, and then I read this poem, and felt oh, that’s exactly it’.’

Let me give you a specific example. As you know, we’re launching a poetry and mental health course on February 1st, we have 11,000 people signed up already. And each week we’re taking a different theme – heartbreak, trauma, and so on. I wanted to move trauma away from military-related PTSD, and include things like female trauma from miscarriages. I had a miscarriage with my first baby, and the only thing that made me feel better was a poem by Katherine Philips from the 1500s. This was a woman who lost 14 children, as you did in Tudor times. She finally gave birth to a beautiful boy, who died after two weeks. And she wrote a beautiful poem to her son Hector. And it’s so modern, resonant and contemporary, you feel she could have written in yesterday.

Twice forty months in wedlock I did stay,
Then had my vows crowned with a lovely boy.
And yet in forty days he dropped away;
O swift vicissitude of human joy!

I did but see him, and he disappeared,
I did but touch the rosebud, and it fell;
A sorrow unforeseen and scarcely feared,
So ill can mortals their afflictions spell.

And now (sweet babe) what can my trembling heart
Suggest to right my doleful fate or thee?
Tears are my muse, and sorrow all my art,
So piercing groans must be thy elegy.

Thus whilst no eye is witness of my moan,
I grieve thy loss (ah, boy too dear to live!)
And let the unconcerned world alone,
Who neither will, nor can refreshment give.

An offering too for thy sad tomb I have,
Too just a tribute to thy early hearse;
Receive these gasping numbers to thy grave,
The last of thy unhappy mother’s verse.

I really like that. Woman to woman it spoke to me about what it feels like to lose a baby. And the power of words, the catharsis, making sense of it. It also shows there’s nothing really new under the sun. With all the advance of medicine, I still know how she feels. It’s not just me, but I couldn’t say it that well.

And I guess we’re a post-religious society, not everyone wants to turn to the Bible, but poems are sort of substitute for prayer-books, the Bible, rosaries etc?

I think that’s right. So often at funerals people recite poems. It seems there’s something about that art form.

Do you think poetry can do that more than prose?

I love prose too, but I do think there’s something about that particular art form, the concentrated language. It demands concentration in the way prose doesn’t always. You may not understand it, it doesn’t matter, you can just feel the rhythm and sense the symbols.

And it’s close to song, isn’t it, so it has an incantatory quality.

That’s right, and the rhythm can be like a heartbeat.

Do you usually read to yourself or out loud?

Usually to myself but I love hearing it being read out loud. We have Ian McKellen reading a Wordsworth sonnet in the course, and he has such a beautiful voice, hearing him read it took me to a completely different place, a different space.

Do you think academic literary studies tends to be a bit blind to the possible therapeutic benefits of literature?

I do. One journalist was quite critical of the project – he said poetry is high art, it’s not therapy. I thought, what a snobbish attitude. Bibliotherapy is a very ancient idea. In Chinese and Japanese culture, there was a tradition of getting away from the court, going to the country, and using poetry to get into a different headspace.

That’s interesting, the idea of poetry as an inner retreat – it can help one find a restorative depth, even in a hospital.

I really believe that. You could be in a high-rise flat, but feel like you’re in a garden, if you’re reading Wordsworth or Marvell. It enriches your inner life. Poems on the Underground was a really brilliant idea – on a busy tube, you read a poem and it transports you. You’re in a different space.

Harold Bloom talks about the importance of memorizing poetry, making it a part of your inner speech as it were.

Yes, my generation was taught to learn poems by heart. There’s all sorts of interesting studies, particularly with dementia, that people who learn poetry by rote can still remember them when they have dementia. I interviewed Melvyn Bragg for the course – his mother got dementia, and when nothing reached her, she’d still respond to Wordsworth’s Daffodils. One of the problems with dementia is that people are very frightened. Anything that stops people feeling so frightened is beneficial.I do. It’s an interesting expression – by heart. It goes in your heart. Then you can remember it in times when you don’t have a book to hand, and be comforted.

So you have launched a poetry for therapy book, a bibliotherapy charity, and this forthcoming FurtureLearn course on poetry and mental health. What is the long-term goal?

Definitely we want to raise awareness. We’re working with prisons and schools, using poetry for relaxation and well-being. My long-term plan is to get the anthology into hospitals and surgeries when they’re in stressful situations. It could be helpful for people to have access to nutritious literature. It’s food for the soul as opposed to fast food. Words have a particular power. They can give hope too.

I’m interested in the FutureLearn course and how one sets one up.

11,500 thousand have signed up for our course already. It’s the first time a mental health course has been launched, I think they’re quite staggered by the sign up rate. Around 2000 are already chatting to each other on the forum, sharing what poems they love. There’s some really interesting anecdotal evidence of people saying ‘this poem really helped’.

How is it structured?

It’s a six week course, with six themes and six videos. Most of the videos are 10 minutes long but some of them were so good – Stephen Fry was so good talking about Keats for an hour, we couldn’t cut it. We have a medical expert talking about each theme, like heartbreak, for example. We get the medical angle. And then we might look at Sense & Sensibility, and how the two sisters deal with heartbreak in different ways. Each week, we look at two or three ppems, and passages from novels. We also give lots of recommendations for extra reading. Then people can also discuss the poems or any other questions on the forum. Jonathan and I are giving feedback each week. We’re very much supporting the learners.

Is this the first online course you’ve done?

Jonathan has done a Shakespeare course which did very well, so he has thousands of MOOC [Massive Open Online Course] followers. It’s very global – people right across the world have done the course.

How easy is it to make a MOOC?

I’m a creative fellow at Warwick. They’re very forward thinking, they realize MOOCs are the way forward. The main platform is FutureLearn, which is part of the Open University. Each university signs up via the FutureLearn platform. Warwick is very professional, very good at filming and editing. I think they’re really at the forefront, and it’s very good for their impact and outreach.