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Martin Seligman

How arts and humanities can influence public policy

I’ve just been at a three-day seminar at the Institute for Government, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, to help academics learn how to influence public policy. The seminar brought together 15 academics in disciplines ranging from literary criticism to design and urban planning.The IFG arranged an impressive line-up of Westminster big-wigs to talk to us, including senior civil servants, Matthew Taylor of the RSA,and Sir Gus O’Donnell, former head of the civil service. They gave us a fascinating look into how politics works, but also showed how hard it is for academics to influence policy.

As one civil servant told us, ministers are extremely busy and rarely get time to read a newspaper article, let alone a research paper. They want any ‘action points’ to be clearly expressed in a two-page document. Tony Blair apparently said that if you can’t express your idea in two sentences, you don’t understand it. All of this was quite off-putting for some of the academics, trained as they are to appreciate subtlety, nuance and multiple readings. One academic was particularly horrified by the idea of using an infograph to get their ideas across.

On their side, some policy-makers expressed frustration at how little useful advice they were getting for all the money they were putting into academic research. For example, the government somewhat controversially set aside a pot of money for academic research into the ‘Big Society’, but apparently, few practical recommendations have arisen from all that research. I think that shows a mistake in timing – there is a lag between ‘government time’ and ‘academic time’, and academics can best influence policy in the quieter years before government, when politicians are formulating their broader policy visions, rather than during government when any academic contributions risk being seen as entirely expedient.

American academics might be better at mass communication

Another policy-maker noted that American academics seemed to be better at influencing British policy than domestic thinkers: think of the ‘Nudge unit’ inspired by Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein and Daniel Kahneman; or the impact of Martin Seligman’s Positive Psychology on British policy. Why is the RSA’s schedule of public talks so full of visiting American intellectuals, with so few British intellectuals? Perhaps, one speaker speculated, American academics are better at selling themselves because they have a much bigger book market to sell into. That emphasis on mass communication makes them better able to deliver TED-style pitches to busy policy-makers.

However, it’s still the case in the US that arts and humanities scholars have little influence on public policy, with a few notable exceptions in history, law and ethics (Michael Sandel, Martha Nussbaum). English literature and cultural studies have little influence on policy, and perhaps that’s as it should be – novels and poetry thankfully resist the utilitarian bent of our times.

To be provocative: is it possible that the huge influence of critical theory, and particularly of Michel Foucault, on arts and humanities academics have, ironically, rendered them less capable of influencing power and changing the world? Doing an arts and humanities PhD sometimes reminds me of initiation into a cult – you go through a three-year period of social isolation, by the end of which you emerge fully inculcated in the radical doctrine of critical theory. This world-view puts you at odds not just with public policy, but also with mass society, including your friends, family and lovers. One academic told me that few relationships survive a humanities PhD, and that she herself had broken up with her boyfriend half-way through her studies (she’s now happily married to a Lacanian). The initiate in critical theory can end up so sceptical of power, they become incapable of influencing it. This limits their influence to the ‘in-culture’ of academia – a culture which is ironically very hierarchical.  I say this as an ‘outsider’ – someone without a PhD who came into academia through journalism (so perhaps I’m just insecure about my lack of qualifications!)

 Four ways that arts and humanities influence public policy

The bard has always played a central, if controversial, role in politics

Let me end on four positive ways that arts and humanities research can and do influence public policy. Firstly, through investigating stories and their impact on our emotions. The arts and humanities are right at the centre of public policy because political communication is to a large extent about stories, words, symbols and how they move us. The scop, the bard, the story-weaver, has always been an important part of court politics. The most obvious way that the arts and humanities could influence public policy, then, is through the exploration of rhetoric, narrative and its effect on the emotions. This exploration would include the recent work of social scientists and psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and George Lakoff into values and metaphor and how they move us.

At the moment, as far as I’m aware, there is only one centre for the study of rhetoric in the UK, which was opened in Royal Holloway’s classics department in 2010 – though I note that Philip Gould left money in his will for a ‘visiting professorship in rhetoric and the art of public persuasion’ at Oxford. There’s room for much more research in this area, and it would have the benefit of being very interesting and (dare I say it ) useful to politicians and their speech-writers. What are Shakespeare’s history plays if not explorations of the rhetoric, narratives and myths of political power? Winston Churchill was able to ‘mobilize the English language and put it to battle’ (as JFK put it) by studying rhetoric, by reading Shakespeare. Our political culture would be greatly improved if more politicians followed his example. Politicians improve or debase our political culture through their language.

Sir Adam Roberts

Secondly, history has an obvious role to play in public policy. We heard, for example, how the History and Policy project helped the policy-makers working on pension reform in the mid-noughties to unearth the history of the existing pension legislation and see how it had grown anachronistic. History helps us see how aspects of our culture that we might take as natural and eternal are in fact recent and constructed. It also gives us useful historical scenarios to think about where we are and where we’re going (think of Paul Kennedy’s work on imperial over-reach, for example, which might have been usefully read by the Bush government). Sir Adam Roberts is an example of a historian who has frequently contributed memoranda to parliamentary debates.

Thirdly, applied ethics has usefully engaged in public policy for several decades, from Baroness Warnock and others’ work on euthanasia, to the contribution of academic philosophers to the Leveson Inquiry’s debate on balancing press freedom with the right to privacy.

Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum: a good example of cooperation between the humanities and social sciences

Finally, arts and humanities scholars have a clear contribution to make to the politics of well-being. This new movement in politics has so far been dominated by economists and psychologists – the Office of National Statistics’ committee to define ‘national well-being’, for example, didn’t contain a single representative from the arts and humanities. Now, well-being economists and psychologists like Richard Layard and Amartya Sen are increasingly engaging with the humanities, particularly with philosophy. They are engaging with the history and plurality of philosophical definitions of well-being. This is good news, as it means well-being policy will become less top-down and dogmatic and more democratic. For example, I hope to work with Layard’s Action for Happiness to design a ‘well-being course’ for adults, which won’t try to shoe-horn everyone into one pre-fabricated definition of well-being, but will instead enable people to consider the scientific evidence, while also debating and forming their own idea of the good life.

At the moment, there are two main Centres for Well-Being in English academia – Richard Layard’s team at the LSE, which is mainly economists; and Felicia Huppert’s Well-Being Institute at Cambridge, which is mainly psychologists. Hopefully we can get the Well-Being Project at Queen Mary started up in earnest this year, to bring thinkers and practitioners from the arts and humanities more into the conversation.


In other news:

Jonathan Rowson of the RSA’s Social Brain project has published a thoughtful new report applying Iain McGilchrist’s thinking on neuroscience to public policy.

MPs will finally get access to therapy at the House of Commons. It would be great if they also received personal training on how to cope with becoming a minister – I was surprised to hear from the IFG that they are thrown into top positions without any training.

Disgraced science journalist Jonah Lehrer, who was exposed for plagiarism and fabricated quotes last year, broke his silence to give a speech to the Knight Foundation – for which he was paid $20,000. Cue much public indignation from other journalists, and this apology from the Knight Foundation.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) published its first recommendations for the treatment of psychosis in young people, deciding that anti-psychotics should only be used when absolutely necessary, and that CBT often works better. Another report highlighted that the popular association of psychosis with violence is not entirely a myth.

RIP Ronald Dworkin, the pre-eminent philosopher of law.

The London Philosophy Club is about to become the biggest philosophy club in the world! We’re poised to overtake our friends / rivals in New York. Join up and come see Clare Carlisle talk about Kierkegaard on the 27th, or Stephen Cave talk about immortality on March 13th.

Also, come to the free workshop on Epicurean philosophy and how we can use it in modern life, which I’m running this Tuesday evening at Queen Mary in London. Email me if you need details etc.

Finally, Alain de Botton, one philosopher not afraid of public engagement, declared in Metro newspaper that the Arts Council should be closed and arts engagement should focus on celebrities with millions of Twitter followers, like One Direction’s Harry Styles. Cue this tweet from Harry.

47,000 re-tweets for Socrates. Impressive. Although not quite as many retweets as Harry’s previous tweet:

See you next week,


Once more, with feeling: the latest attempt to teach flourishing in schools

This week I’d like to examine the latest attempt to teach young people how to flourish in schools, via a new randomised controlled trial of a new Personal and Social Health Education curriculum, which is being launched in 30 English schools this autumn. As regular readers know, the attempt to teach people how to flourish is a subject close to my heart- indeed, my book, Philosophy for Life, imagines a ‘dream school’ that does just that.

Teaching flourishing has a long history. We could go back to the 19th century, when private schools tried to teach character through a combination of muscular Christianity and the classics, or all the way back to philosophy schools like Plato’s Acaedemy or Aristotle’s Lyceum. But let’s start more recently than that (I hear you breathe a collective sigh of relief) and begin in the late 1990s, when New Labour became interested in bringing psychotherapy into politics.

The idea of teaching well-being in schools took off in the UK after the publication of Daniel Goleman’s pop psychology book Emotional Intelligence in 1995. That book inspired a local education authority in Southampton to introduce EI classes in its schools, through a subject called Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL). Other LEAs followed Southampton’s example, and in 2002, Ed Balls, the minister for education, made SEAL a non-statutory component in the national primary curriculum, as one part of a new subject called Personal and Social Health Education, or PSHE (sorry for all these acronyms). In 2007 it was introduced in the national curriculum for secondary schools. Although it was voluntary, around 80% of comprehensives taught SEAL in some form.

Despite the enormous, almost religious enthusiasm of LEAs and New Labour, SEAL rapidly attracted controversy. Some, like Kathryn Ecclestone at the University of Birmingham, criticised the ‘dangerous rise of therapeutic education’, where children were taught that a certain model of emotionality was ‘good’ and other models ‘bad’ or ‘sick’. Indeed, Goleman’s EI argues that the healthy child is socially-skilled and happy to publicly share their emotions – in other words, the healthy child is a girl. Boys or introverts, who may be reluctant to publicly discuss their emotions in circles, are immediately pathologised.

Schools were given a SEAL starter-pack and not much other guidance from Whitehall.

Another problem with SEAL was that schools were given very little guidance in how to teach it beyond a SEAL pack sent out from Whitehall. Only a fifth of teachers have any training in SEAL or PSHE. Many schools made it up as they went along, and SEAL classes included everything from CBT to rainbow rhythms. This, to some extent, reflected the intellectual incoherence of Goleman’s pop psychology book (Goleman wasn’t a trained psychologist, he was a journalist for the New York Times).

The big problem with SEAL, which a team at the University of Manchester discovered and reported in 2010, was that it didn’t do what it was meant to do. It had no impact either on children’s emotional well-being or their academic performance. Somehow, in all the enthusiasm, no one had thought to evaluate it until it had been in our schools and imposed on our children for a decade. I find that cavalier attitude pretty shocking, and a classic example of the policy risks of good intentions without good evidence.

The realisation that SEAL lacked any evidence base seriously undermined the idea of teaching flourishing in schools, and also undermined LEAs in the eyes of the new Coalition government. When Michael Gove became minister for education, he rolled back many of New Labour’s well-being initiatives in schools, abandoning Every Child Matter and insisting that OFSTED no longer try to evaluate the well-being of pupils. Gove also ordered a review of PSHE. That review is on-going – it was supposed to have published its results by now, but apparently the Department of Education has its hands full with its academy and free school programme. The government has at least made clear it doesn’t think much of SEAL.

The Penn Resilience Project

However, there was another attempt to teach young people how to flourish in a more evidence-based way. This was the Penn Resilience Project (PRP), which was designed by Karen Reivich, Martin Seligman and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania. It was an attempt to introduce the basics of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy into classrooms, with the same evidence-based scrupulosity with which Penn’s Aaron Beck brought CBT into the mainstream of therapy.

In 2007, three local education authorities (Hertfordshire, Manchester and South Tyneside) paid to send around 100 teachers to Penn to be trained in the PRP, and then to teach it in 22 schools. The impact on students’ academic results and emotional well-being was then evaluated by a team at the London School of Economics. One of the driving forces behind the PRP was Richard Layard, professor at the LSE and the author of Happiness: Lessons From A New Science, who had also been instrumental in getting government support for the huge expansion of CBT services in the NHS.

The PRP was the great hope of enthusiasts for well-being education, because it was supposed to be carefully scientific and evidence-based compared to SEAL. Unfortunately, when project evaluation was published by the LSE in 2011, the results were not a home-run. Amy Challen, one of the project evaluators at the LSE, tells me:

There was a 0.1 standard deviation for participants on the Beck Depression Index, and that quickly tailed off after the project finished. That’s quite small. There are lots of possible reasons for that. Most young people don’t have depression in the first place. Also children were only taught 18 hours of the course in total – as Richard Layard said, you can’t learn French in 18 hours and it may be the same for well-being. There were problems with recruitment of teachers as well. Twenty of the teachers didn’t teach any PRP workshop, and some only taught one. And some teachers had excessive expectations – they thought you could teach the programme and everyone’s life would be transformed. They would focus on individual cases where they saw transformations, and not understand why that impact didn’t show up in the data. It’s because that was just one child among 30.

During the PRP pilot, Richard Layard and two colleagues decided to be more ambitious, and to try and gather together the best evidence-based programmes from around the world (well, the US, UK and Australia) not just for emotional well-being but for the entire PSHE curriculum, which also includes topics like sexual and physical health, media awareness, and also occasionally citizenship, environmental awareness, and even (shock horror) moral philosophy. Last year, they published a report outlining their new, evidence-based curriculum for PSHE, which brought together around 16 evidence-based programmes, including PRP and other CBT and mindfulness-based programmes. Layard wanted to test this curriculum out over a longer period, to give the children the time to really learn the cognitive and behavioural skills embedded in the course. James O’ Shaughnessy, former head of the Downing Street policy unit under David Cameron, who is a big enthusiast for teaching flourishing, told me: ‘One of the things we know from the evidence is the importance of habit formation. That takes time.’

Emma Judge, one of the two founders of How To Thrive

The new curriculum is now being road-tested in a randomised controlled trial at 30 schools around the South-East of England, starting in autumn of this year. The RCT is being funded through a £687,000 grant from the Education Endowment Fund, and is being evaluated by the LSE. The teaching and teacher-training is being organised by Emma Judge and Lucy Bailey, who helped to run the original PRP pilot for Hertfordshire local education authority, and who subsequently set up a not-for-profit called How To Thrive. Through that, they have trained 700 teachers to teach the resilience programme in 80 schools around the country. Emma Judge says: ‘The initial PRP pilot was just 18 hours. The research suggests that people can learn new habits but it’s hard work and takes practice.’ The new project will teach children an hour a week, over four years, and will cover all the topics of PSHE, including media / advertising awareness, drug awareness and sexual health, bringing together evidence-based programmes like the PRP, Mood Gym from Australia, and the Parents Under Construction programme from Houston.

Lucy Bailey says: ‘An important idea is that this is a proper subject, which is valued in schools, which teachers can talk about, which students see as valued by the school. In the initial project, some schools felt ‘don’t go into that classroom, they talk about feelings there’.’ Emma adds: ‘We used to get a lot of nervousness from teachers with the original PRP, who were worried they would be opening up a can of worms by venturing into the emotions. But that’s reduced now, because teachers realize it’s not about that. Some experiences would not be suitable for the classroom and would be handled differently, through the school’s counseling services.’

The tricky question of values

I ask Lucy and Emma if the new curriculum is trying to teach young people values. This seems to me the thorny question for both PSHE and Positive Psychology in schools. On the one hand, they are attempts to help young people to flourish. On the other hand, there is an understandable nervousness about state schools promoting a particular ethical vision of the good life (there’s much less nervousness about this in private schools, perhaps because they’re less multicultural in their pupil demographics, and because parents know what sort of ethical culture they’re paying for).

Emma says: ‘Positive Psychology does face that value question, and we’re involved in the designing of a Positive Psychology whole-school approach for Wellington College. But this PSHE curriculum is much more about skills and awareness than values. Of course, we don’t want kids to take drugs, or get drunk, or have unprotected sex, but there’s nothing more invasive than that.’ Lucy adds: ‘We want to strengthen young people’s capacity to make their own decisions. Of course at year 7 or 8 we say ‘it’s better not to take drugs’, but at year 9 or 10 we say ‘what’s your view?’ We want to help people develop their own value system. A Catholic school might have a very particular set of ideas about sex, for example, while we’re not trying to influence young people in any one way on that topic. We’re not saying how they should be.’

This is, of course, a tricky area. It’s one I grapple with in my book too. You can leave out values from the curriculum altogether and say you’re just teaching ‘life-skills’, but that risks leaving children in a moral vacuum, where you sacrifice children on the altar of your own liberal tolerance (wow, quite a melodramatic metaphor there). Or you can opt to include explicit values in the curriculum, but then you risk indoctrinating young people in your own unexamined dogma, drilled into them Madrasah-style, rather than enabling people to develop an autonomous and sceptical mind-set. The challenge is balancing indoctrination with skepticism, balancing inherited wisdom with a freedom to choose one’s own path. This is not an easy trick to pull off, and requires a great deal of skill, wisdom and humanity from the teacher.

I would still love to see more ethical discussion in PSHE, perhaps to combine it with Religious Education and moral philosophy, or at least to introduce more Socratic discussions about different models of the good life into the classroom – particularly in year 11, year 12, and at university. Life-skills are the means, but it’s useful also to think about the ends. I wish the new project the best of luck over the next four years. I’m not sure what the government plans to do with PSHE in the meantime.


Here is a new brief collection of brief articles by Tory MPs on mental health. It’s interesting as an example of how mainstream mental health policy has now become. The MPs argue for new policies including greater provision of mental health services for soldiers and veterans, and greater choice of therapies for people besides CBT on the NHS.

Here is a new report from the World Economic Forum on creating a more evidence-based and quantifiable approach to well-being in the workplace.

Action for Happiness has published an interesting new report on the role of values in happiness and well-being.

A great article in Nature magazine on ritual and its role in societies.

The New York Times notes a new genre, the self-help memoire. The Guardian thinks that Sheila Heti’s new bestseller work of 20-something funny angst could be described as a self-help mash-up. And of course, Lena Dunham, creator of the HBO series Girls, is writing a sort of self-help mash-up too. Self-help is gradually becoming hip, mark my words…

I just read Jaron Lanier’s brilliant You Are Not A Gadget, which is a wonderful meditation on how the internet is not necessarily making us more free and authentic, and may be making us more conformist and enslaved to ‘Lords of the Cloud’ like Google and Facebook. In that somewhat dystopian vein, check out this interesting Aeon magazine long-read from Claire Evans about how the internet haunts us with the ghosts of past relationships.

Can autism be outgrown, asks Time Magazine.

My brother and another friend are both involved in the complex attempt to come up with new UN Millennium Development Goals. Not an easy task, as this Guardian editorial notes.

This week I have been mainly listening to new albums by Toro Y Moi (weird indie R&B) and Matthew E. White (sort of intelligent and quiet soul); I have been mainly reading Elijah Wald’s excellent book on the history of rock and roll; and mainly watching this wonderful documentary, also about the history of rock ‘n roll. Can’t wait to see Zero Dark Thirty this weekend.

See you next week,