Skip to content

Education policy

What universities can learn from Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley

On Monday, I’m teaching undergraduates for the first time at my university, Queen Mary University of London. It’s launching a ten-lecture course on health and well-being, and I’m doing two of them – one on the philosophies of well-being, another on ego-transcendence.

It’s a small step towards the dream I’ve had since I was an unhappy undergrad at Oxford 20 years ago, of introducing courses in wisdom to higher education. It’s been such slow progress. I’ve been working in British academia for seven years, and this is the first lecture I’ve done to undergraduates, because what I teach (wisdom / well-being etc) doesn’t really fit into the history curriculum, so I’ve only run occasional workshops or events on the fringes of the university. This course is run by the psychology department, who I only met last year.

That’s what it’s like at British universities – departments rarely talk to each other. They sometimes come together briefly to try and win funding, but interdisciplinary courses are few and far between.

I initially envisioned a wonderful interactive course in the good life, with small groups of students engaged in Socratic reasoning. Instead, I was told we don’t have the budget for small groups, so it will be a large lecture instead, and not to expect much student participation. We also don’t have the budget to mark long essays, so the course will be assessed by multiple choice and marked by a machine. Not quite what Socrates had in mind, but there you go. Small steps.

Last year, I tried to launch a ‘well-being hub’ at Queen Mary. There are lots of people working on emotional well-being there – some on student mental health, some on postgrad and staff mental health, and then some academic researchers studying mental health in the general population. None of these different groups communicate with one another. Why not set up a hub to connect to each other?

This was meant to be a small step towards a greater goal of setting up a ‘well-being centre’, which would unite research and practice in well-being. There are a handful of well-being research centres at British universities, but they do all their research outside of the university – there’s no connection to the student curriculum, or to student and staff well-being. In fact, student and staff well-being is often outsourced, and is generally considered completely separate to education.

Why not combine research and practice in one centre, which could both provide courses in meditation, CBT, positive psychology and wisdom, and also collect data on what works?

Well, we didn’t even get past the first step. There was very limited enthusiasm for the idea of a well-being hub, never mind a well-being centre. Academics are too busy with their own departments, their own teaching and research. There’s a weariness around new initiatives which demand people’s time, a suspicion of other departments, and no real incentive to try new experiments. It’s like soldiers in the Somme: just survive until Christmas. The leadership of the university doesn’t seem that bothered either. My impression of western universities is they are like England during the Wars of the Roses – powerful fiefdoms (ie departments) and not-very-powerful monarchs.

If a university genuinely wants to take student and staff well-being seriously, and not merely provide more counselling but make it a core part of what the university teaches and researches, then it needs leadership from the top – from vice-chancellors. It needs someone in charge of co-ordinating well-being education and research. And it needs money. I think it would then bring returns to the university, in terms of improvements in student experience, leadership in research, and good publicity.

But we are so far from that in the UK. The University of Buckingham is one place trying to make well-being a central focus of teaching and research – Anthony Seldon, the new vice-chancellor, wants to make it the first ‘positive university’. We’ll see how much progress he makes in getting staff and students onboard with his vision.

In the US, I have applauded university courses in things like happiness, positive psychology, contemplative education, the good life, justice and so on. Such courses tend to be hugely popular with undergraduates, and to attract a lot of positive publicity for the university. They’re also in alignment with universities’ historic mission to teach young people not just how to be a historian, say, or a dentist, but how to be a good person.

And yet even in the US, universities don’t really take this sort of education that seriously. Last month, I met Derek Bok, former president of Harvard. He’s thought and written more than most on what the purpose of universities should be, and whether universities are fulfilling those purposes – he’s written six excellent books on the topic and is working on the seventh. He’s sympathetic to the idea that universities should teach wisdom, and interested in how they could evaluate success in that effort

He told me:

There are alternative approaches to education that we should look at seriously – things like meditation and Positive Psychology. They deserve a good try. Demand [for such courses among students] is far ahead of our capacity to fill it. There are a lot of professors now who teach meditation and take it very seriously, but there are very few universities where they would say ‘our professor responsible for meditation has left, we must find a successor’. That’s not one of the holes you must fill, like teaching Shakespeare. When it is taught and then someone moves on, there’s no great hue and cry to replicate it. Our students are really hungry to think in new ways about what kind of a person they want to be, and we don’t do anything about it. It’s terrible!

I’m very much in favour of more experimentation. But when someone does experiment there’s no effort to evaluate – it just comes and goes, and lost in the mist of history. Nothing is gained. You want to know what is the lasting value of this course ten years on. We should do a lot more to ask people years later what really mattered to them about college. With courses on the good life you have to wait for them to have lived awhile before you ask them, did any of this help? I’m very dubious about student self-reports in general, but when people have been out of university for a while, they’re in a better position to evaluate.

I was surprised to hear Bok sound so pessimistic – after all, he was president of Harvard, and even he, with all his institutional power and all his interest in teaching wisdom / happiness / character etc, was unable to make any permanent changes to the Harvard curriculum, as far as I know. How come?

He said:

The great problem is the complete control over the curriculum exercised by the faculty, who are willing to teach only what they’re trained to think. And they don’t feel concerned that we should try and fill the demand for this sort of course from students.

I went to meet Bok and his wife Sissela to talk about Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, Gerald Heard and Alan Watts – the ‘mystical expats’, who moved from England to California in the 1930s and helped to invent the Californian counter-culture. Bok’s mother, Peggy, was a great friend of Huxley, Heard and Isherwood, and Derek grew up with them and still has vivid memories of them. It was wonderful to hear his reminiscences about them, and genuine fondness for them. He showed me this unpublished photo his mother took of Huxley playing with his cat.

Bok told me he can’t remember them ever talking about higher education. Maybe not, but they certainly wrote about it, a lot. And they had a really fascinating vision for what universities could be and do. Heard, Huxley and Watts, in particular, thought students could be taught not just knowledge, but wisdom – emotional, physical, creative and spiritual wisdom.

They were connected to three of the best experiments in higher education of the last 50 years – Schumacher College in Devon, the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco, and the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. Heard taught at Dartington College – out of which Schumacher College grew – and ran a meditation group there. Alan Watts taught at the early version of CIIS – imagine having him as a lecturer on Zen and Daoism! And all three were key influences on the Esalen Institute and its vision for an integral education which develops humans’ ethical, emotional, physical and spiritual potential.

Huxley laid out his vision for higher education in one of his last books, The Human Situation. It’s actually the transcript of a lecture course he gave at the University of California in Santa Barbara, in 1959.

In the first lecture, on ‘Integrated Education’, he warns about the danger of over-specialization in education, and says: ‘an ideal integrated education calls for an approach to the subject in terms of fundamental human problems. Who are we? What is the nature of human nature? How should we be related to the planet on which we live? How are we to live together satisfactorily? How are to develop our individual potentialities? What is the relationship between nature and nurture?’

And then, because he had guts, he tried to answer just those questions, with lectures on the environment and the environmental crisis, on war and nationalism, on the world’s future, on the ego and the unconscious, on language and art, on religion, mysticism and ‘latent human potentials’.  Just imagine you’re an undergrad and you get to see Huxley lecture on mystical experiences!

I’m sure the course wasn’t perfect – it sometimes goes off on Huxley’s strange hobby-horses. But at least he tried to offer a whole, integrated education to students. What did I get at Oxford? Three years on English literature, without any introduction to psychology, economics, ecology, physics and biology, sociology, business, politics, theology, or wisdom in general. Who really needs to study English Literature – and only English Literature – for three years? That’s only a useful education if you intend to become an English Lit. academic.

Alas, Huxley’s bold attempt has also disappeared into the mists of history, and it was never evaluated – though we know at least that the final lecture on ‘human potential’ inspired the founders of the Esalen Institute to launch their experiment.

Meanwhile, as levels of student debt balloon and demand for student mental health services soars, we still have no idea what university is for, or if its meeting that purpose. There are endless headlines about the crisis in student mental health, but very few new ideas.  We need bold ideas and bold experiments, including perhaps the creation of alternative institutions, like Esalen, CIIS and Schumacher College.

As for established universities, I hope at least one university in the UK or elsewhere will take well-being education seriously enough to establish a centre and put some money into it. Meanwhile, I’ll take another tiny step on Monday, and teach my first lecture.

The Quakers on how to balance inner and outer work

Last week I visited Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat centre outside Philadelphia, nestled between the gorgeous Quaker liberal arts colleges of Haverford and Swarthmore. I made a sort of mini-pilgrimage there as part of my research into the ‘mystical expats’ – Gerald Heard, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood and Alan Watts, four English writers who moved to California in the 1930s and helped invent the ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ demographic (which is now 25% of the US population).

Gerald Heard is the least remembered of the four, but in many ways, he was their guiding light. In the early 30s, he was a BBC science journalist, the Brian Cox of his day, who became interested in the idea of man’s social and spiritual evolution. He thought the next stage of man’s evolution would involve an exodus beyond tribal authoritarian religion – people would learn to practice and study techniques for self-transformation from a variety of religions, testing them out with empirical psychology. He called for new institutions of education – somewhere between a monastery and a college – where adults could come to study and practice these psycho-spiritual techniques, thereby sparking man’s evolution to a higher level of group consciousness.

This marriage of psychology and contemplation was very influential for Huxley and Isherwood, for the founders of Esalen (the 60s adult development college in Big Sur), and for western spirituality in general. In fact, it’s only in the last decade that contemplative science has become mainstream, and contemplative education has begun to influence university curricula. Heard’s vision is still ahead of our time.

Gerald Heard (left) and Christopher Isherwood with Swami Prabhavananda in California

During World War Two, Heard and Isherwood both spent a lot of time at Pendle Hill. Heard wrote several pamphlets for the Pendle Hill press on Quaker topics, and helped set up a Quaker journal on contemplation, called Inner Light. For a while, he thought the Quakers could be the vanguard for the next stage in western culture’s spiritual evolution. Quakers didn’t claim a monopoly on salvation – they thought all humans have an ‘inner light’ connecting them to God. They rejected ritual and priestly hierarchy; and they still practiced a rudimentary form of meditation in their silent worship. He hoped there might be a contemplative revival in the Quakers, as they absorbed insights from ancient contemplative practices and modern depth psychology.

But how would this contemplative revival fit with the Protestant focus on good works, on mission and evangelism, on social action, bearing witness to injustice, and the burning question of what to do in response to Nazi aggression? Heard and Huxley had been prominent pacifists in the UK. But in the US, with the war in full swing, both seemed to withdraw from politics and go within. Heard declared that a peaceful politics was impossible with man at his present level of evolution – humans needed to evolve to a higher stage of consciousness. Until we did the inner work, all outer work would end badly.

This is an important question for our own time. I’m part of the culture that Heard et al helped usher in – ‘spiritual but not religious’, psychologically literate, trying to do inner work while not joining any particular religion. But this path risks becoming selfish, spiritually proud, consumerist and individualist. At the same time, I’ve seen too many people who dedicate their lives to charitable or development work burning out and doing damage to themselves because they’re not taking care of their own souls. So how do we balance care of our souls with the outer work of trying to build a fairer and kinder world?

Rufus Jones

One Quaker who thought a lot on this question was Rufus Jones, who Isherwood ironically dubbed ‘the Pope of Quakerism’. Jones taught philosophy at Haverford College and often visited nearby Pendle Hill. He was a great friend of an ancestor of mine, Yorkshire Quaker John Wilhelm Rowntree. The two met in the 30s and immediately felt a spiritual affinity.

Both of them were mystically-inclined – JW Rowntree had a spiritual experience in his 30s, after being told by a doctor that he was rapidly going blind. He left the clinic, walked out into the streets of York, and suddenly felt filled with the inner light of God’s love. Jones, meanwhile, travelled across the Atlantic to visit JW Rowntree, and on the journey he woke up in his cabin and felt a sense of anguish. That was succeeded by a deep sense of peace, love and divine support. On arriving in England, he discovered his beloved son had died that night.

Jones and Rowntree felt a shared sense of mission. They wanted to reframe Quakerism as a liberal, mystical religion, an empirical spirituality flexible enough to respond to scientific and historical criticism, which recognized the value of spiritual experiences in other religious traditions. But they also wanted to show, through historical research, that this mystical Qnuaker religion was not some flaky modern innovation, but a re-connection to a deep, central tradition in Christianity.

So they embarked on a project to re-position the Quakers within this mystical tradition, thereby uniting the warring liberal and traditionalist factions of the Quakers and re-animating the movement for the sceptical and scientific 20th century. Alas, JW Rowntree died aged 37, while visiting Jones in Philadelphia. I discovered on this trip that he’s buried next to Jones in the Quaker cemetery in Haverford, a few miles from Pendle Hill. I went there and found a corner of a foreign field that is forever Yorkshire.

Jones continued the project alone, and wrote Studies in Mystical Religion and many other books and essays on mysticism. He helped to reframe the idea of mysticism for American readers, who still had the traditional Protestant suspicions of the word: mysticism was considered introvert, solitary, morbid, sectarian, and completely opposite to the American cheery, practical, civic ethos.

Jones rebranded mysticism by insisting it meant simply ‘direct first-hand fellowship with God, and the deepened life-results that emerge’. The true mystic feels a ‘marked increase in joy’ and an increase in productivity and effectiveness too: ‘Under the creative impact of their experience, they have become hundred-horse-power persons, with a unique striking force against gigantic forms of evil and with a remarkable quality of leadership’. Very American eh? The mystic as super-powered manager.

Jones is a pretty biased historian of mysticism. He rejects almost all medieval monasticism – except for the Franciscans – and prefers obscure Protestant dissenter movements like the Brotherhood of Eternal Love and the Seekers (it’s thanks to Jones’ fascination with this 17th-century group that we got the modern term ‘seeker’ for restless spiritual searchers). He also barely discusses eastern mysticism and its attempt to overcome the illusion of this world. The true mystic, for Jones, doesn’t deny the world – they affirm it and work vigorously to improve it.

The Quakers have, of course, been incredibly effective at reforming the world. Although a tiny denomination with rarely more than a hundred thousand members, Quakers were at  the forefront of the movement to abolish slavery; they led humane reforms in asylums and prisons; they did important work in supporting the minimum wage and the introduction of the welfare state (particularly thanks to JW Rowntree’s brother, Seebohm); they have a central role in the history of adult education and adult literacy; and they’ve also played a key role in championing pacifism and non-violent resistance.

Jones found time, while teaching philosophy at Haverford College and writing histories of mysticism, to help set up the American Society of Friends Committee (ASFC), which re-settled thousands of Jewish refugees during the war – Christopher Isherwood volunteered for them and lived at Haverford for a year or so. The ASFC also helped feed a million German children after the war. They were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947.

I personally find Quaker contemplation a bit limited. To me, it’s too non-hierarchical, too non-structured. There is no sense of the structured journey through the psyche that one finds in Buddhism or medieval mysticism, nor any sense that we need guides and rituals on that journey. It’s like an orchestra where no one admits that some people play better than others, and sometimes you need teachers, a conductor and a score.

I’ve often criticized the tendency towards guru-worship in Buddhism and Hinduism. But perhaps the Quakers go too far the other way. People need help and guidance in tapping the deep well of consciousness within them. I’m not surprised that the Quaker renaissance that Heard called for didn’t happen, and that instead millions of westerners turned to Eastern practices like Vipassana, Zen, yoga, Daoism and Vajrayana Buddhism. We want to be taught by contemplative experts.

Nonetheless, the Quakers – and Rufus Jones – have an important message for us. What’s the point of all this inner work if it doesn’t make us kinder and less egocentric, if it doesn’t turn us outwards towards our fellow beings, including particularly those who are hungry, homeless, rejected, uneducated, locked up and abused? How can we combine eastern contemplative practices with Christianity’s emphasis on not accepting the world as it is, but rather trying to improve it? How do we avoid spiritual pride and the idolatry of priest-worship?

The Quakers also show us the importance of socializing your spirituality, connecting it to networks of friends and groups. It’s when our spirituality is knitted together with others into a quilt of community that we become much more effective at working to help others. As a chronic individualist, I need to remember this.