Skip to content

Positive Psychology

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

Review: The Happiness Industry by William Davies

9781781688458-4171756f689401c14d3e2d09906a9e3fWatch out folks. There is a murky world lurking behind the scenes, a sinister cabal of policy-makers, psychologists, CEOs, advertizers and life-coaches, watching you, measuring you, nudging you, monitoring your every smile, all to try and make you happy. We must resist. This, broadly, is the message of sociologist William Davies’ book, The Happiness Industry: How Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being.

I opened Davies’ book expecting a historical critique of the so-called ‘politics of well-being’, a movement which arose in the last decade. Cognitive psychologists like Aaron Beck, Martin Seligman and Daniel Kahneman found ways to measure how our thoughts can make us miserable, and how cognitive behavioural interventions can help us to be wiser and happier.  The evidence-base they built up persuaded policy-makers – particularly in the UK, but increasingly around the world – that governments can and should try to measure and improve citizens’ well-being.

The science of flourishing became a way for policy-makers to move beyond the cultural relativism bequeathed us by Nietzsche, through a marriage of ancient wisdom (Buddhist, ancient Greek) and empirical science. Governments could then try and improve citizens’ ‘flourishing’ without being accused of imposing their version of the good life on every else. ‘It’s not our version’, they could say. ‘It’s science.’

The politics of well-being is still quite an undeveloped movement, but in England it’s led to specific policies, particularly to the collection of well-being data to guide policies; an on-going attempt to teach ‘well-being’ and ‘character’ in schools; and the expansion of free talking therapies on the NHS.

Davies has written well on this movement for the New Left Review. But what we get in this book is a much more sprawling narrative, which looks at the history of the attempt, in economics, psychology, statistics and neuroscience, to measure moods and emotions, and to use that data either to ‘nudge’ us towards policy-outcomes, or sell us things, or keep us working. The story meanders from Bentham to JB Watson via whiplash, social networks theory, the DSM, the history of management consultancy, the Chicago school, the history of stress and the Quantified Self movement. It risks becoming a history of everything, and could more coherently have concentrated on the last decade (although oddly he doesn’t mention Kahneman, or happiness economist Ed Diener, or the various attempts to teach well-being in schools, or Martin Seligman’s attempt to teach ‘resilience’ to the entire US Army).

The ‘enemy’ of his book seems to be an overly-mechanistic or behaviourist model of the mind, in which scientific experts measure our mood-machine and try to steer it without asking people what they mean or care about. Certainly, the politics of well-being can be anti-democratic and positivistic. When our government came up with a national definition of well-being, for example, it did so via a small panel of experts, entirely made up of economists and psychologists.

However, Davies’ story risks confusing the behaviourist with the cognitive behavioural. Much of the politics of well-being sprung from the success of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which arose in the 1960s as a critical response to behaviourism. In CBT, people’s beliefs, meanings and values are all-important, so it’s more humanistic and potentially more democratic. It’s true that CBT can ignore the impact of external circumstances like poverty on our emotions. But people are developing more collective forms which equip us to change our circumstances (like being in debt to loan sharks) as well as our inner lives.

Probably the biggest impact of the politics of well-being so far has been to increase public funding for talking therapies, and to put mental health on the political map – there is a new campaign in the UK for ‘parity of esteem’ between physical and mental health in the NHS. But Davies ignores this. Instead, he focuses on the possibility of therapy or life-coaching being forced onto benefit-claimants in England and Wales. The Department for Work and Pensions denies therapy is ever mandatory, although it may be on occasion, and this should be opposed as an ethical breach and a waste of tax-payer money. But we also need to vigorously defend and expand free therapy for those who need it and want it.  Davies doesn’t lift a finger in support.

Instead, he lays into corporate wellness programmes and the booming wellness industry, and slams the proliferation of ‘chief happiness officers’ and ‘happiness apps’ monitoring our every smile. Are they? Does your company have a chief happiness officer? Have you ever used a ‘happiness measuring app’? It’s true that a handful of companies are taking well-being seriously (a few, like Zappos, take it too seriously). On the whole I think this is a good thing, and could mean companies take employee satisfaction and corporate ethics more seriously as well. But at the moment, most companies’ well-being programmes amount to little more than a salad option at lunch, cheap gym membership, and one away-day a year for some wacky team-building and half-baked resilience-training. Hardly Brave New World.

The over-riding tone of Davies’ book is the hermeneutics of suspicion – he is constantly expressing ‘unease’, ‘disquiet’ and the need for ‘critical resistance’ to the ‘hidden agenda’ of the elite. This is left-wing academics’ favourite posture, but it’s not really radical in that it undermines people’s agency: the ‘well-being agenda’ in this narrative is always something the elite imposes, never something citizens develop for themselves (as is actually the case with the Quantified Self movement). And his ‘perpetual unease’ doesn’t change anything. What are you actually for?

It turns out Davies is for co-operatives, for co-owned companies in which decision-making is shared. Such companies make us happier, according to research. He’s also for local community mental health initiatives like therapeutic gardening, which research suggests make us happier. And he’s for more equal and less competitive societies, which some research suggests make us happier. So on the occasions he’s arguing for something positive, Davies turns to well-being data for support.

At the extreme of his argument, he says governments should ignore people’s moods and feelings altogether, and focus on the serious business of improving material circumstances. That’s exactly the argument successive governments have used to deprive mental health services of funding. Hopefully, this is finally changing, but Davies’ book does little to help the cause.