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Gay Pride shows how Christian our culture still is

It was when I took the escalator in Tottenham Court Road station that I realized quite how much Gay Pride has been embraced as a national festival. The entire tube station was festooned in rainbow colours, like a SuperMarioKart racetrack. Outside, a huge sign read Love is Love.

Can you imagine a tube station blaring out any other social or ethical message to the same extent? Equal pay for women? Care for the environment? Love of God? I realized that Gay Pride / LGBTQ rights has gone in 50 years from being a very marginal and unpopular issue, to being a foundational dogma of our secular, liberal society.

It’s no longer one view among many views which a reasonable person might hold (like being a carnivore or supporting prison reform). It has been taken out of the forum of debate, and become part of the main code of our culture, un-editable.

50 years ago, a handful of brave politicians stuck their neck out to campaign for the de-criminalization of homosexuality, and did so only by insisting sick deviants deserved pity rather than prison.

Today, Gay Pride has official government support – a friend from Number 10 told me the prime minister must make a supportive speech on Pride, as she must on Eid, Easter, Diwali and Chanukah. If an MP or councillor suggests homosexuality is not natural or acceptable then, like Tim Farron, they’re unlikely to be in frontline politics for long.

Other pillars of the establishment hoist the rainbow flag: the foreign office, the police force, the fire service, the army, the NHS, the British Museum, the National Trust. The BBC commissioned a series of programmes, Gay Britannia. I’m surprised we don’t drop rainbow bombs on ISIS.

If you’re one of the 12-25% of the population who still believe homosexuality should not be accepted, or who disapprove of gay marriage, you may be miffed. You may think the secular, liberal state isn’t really neutral, that your opinion has been declared invalid and illegal.

Well…that’s the way it goes. This issue has been taken up by our society as a way we define ourselves, it’s become part of the story we tell ourselves about who we are. Myth-making is a strange, non-rational process, and for this round you’re on the wrong side of it.

Why have LGBTQ right become such a foundational myth for our society, when LGBTQ people are only 10% of our society? Why are transgender rights given so much airtime when transgender people constitute roughly 0.1% of the population?

Perhaps it’s because championing LGBTQ rights is a way for post-religious societies to reassure themselves they’re still morally good, even though they’re post-religious. We can congratulate ourselves that we’re better than old, homophobic, Christian Europe or nasty, Islamic fundamentalist cultures – we let love rule! We voted a drag queen the winner of Eurovision! Fuck you, traditional religious societies: we’re secular Europe and we’re fabulous. Seen this way, Gay Pride is a way for secularists to celebrate Europe coming out of the closet of Christianity.

It’s true that Christianity has attacked homosexuality for millennia, and that societies become more accepting of homosexuality as they become less Christian (see the Pew Research chart below). And I also believe (as you probably do too) that LGBTQ liberation is something to celebrate – it’s a moral achievement, part of humans’ millennia-long expansion of love and respect, a step forward that happened despite the church, not because of it.

 

Seen another way, however, the festival of Gay Pride shows that post-religious societies are not post-sacred. Gay pride is a sacred festival – a celebration of love, pride and dignity as sacred values (complete with anthems, costumes, bunting and unicorns). Pride also shows that post-Christian societies are still very Christian in their ideals and emotional narratives. Yes, Gay Pride is a very Christian festival. It shows that secular liberal culture is still improvising its sacred rituals out of the Christian fancy-dress box.

Why Gay Pride is such a Christian festival

The message of Pride – social liberation from fear and oppression – is an improvisation of the old standard from Exodus. One day my people will be free. It’s a riff from an earlier improvisation by the civil rights movement of the 1960s. When you listen to gay house music of the late 1980s, made at the height of the AIDS epidemic, it sounds like Martin Luther King with an 808 beat. So many of the early gay house anthems are soaring gospel epics, singing of The Promised Land, praying for Freedom, longing for Some Day when Your Love will lift us up and we will Finally be Free.

The message of Pride is also one of personal liberation – the individual’s journey through alienation and oppression until they find the True Me. We in post-60s liberal society love that story and tell it over and over.

It’s originally a Christian story. Jesus finds himself and becomes Christ. Saul becomes Paul. Augustine finally gets together with God. How early Christians must have shocked their parents and scandalized their society. ‘Mum, Dad, I’ve got something to tell you. I’m a Christian.’ You’re a what?? Are you sure it’s not just a phase?

The drama of the Christian personal revelation – the first love, the inner wrestling, being born-again, then coming out despite the risk – is something new in antiquity. It’s not Greek or Roman at all. Compare Augustine’s Confessions to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

Marcus is not really interested in himself as an individual. He’s a collection of beliefs illuminated by reason. He uses his journal to analyze his beliefs and habits, and bring them into accord with the cosmic rationality of the Logos. Not much drama there. Augustine’s Confessions, by contrast, is an intensely emotional journey of transformation in which Augustine encounters a loving God, resists Him, surrenders to Him, becomes a new person, and then comes out of the closet as a Christian in the Roman empire. It is a highly dramatic, highly emotional story of personal liberation. Very Gay Pride.

It’s customary today for Christians to condemn the individualism of secular liberal society, but as Larry Siedentrop and others point out, Christianity invented the individual and bequeathed us secular individualism. In Christianity, the individual person is a unique soul, loved and desired by a personal God, and they remain a person even in the afterlife. The individual soul and its personal choices are more sacred than the social order. This shocking idea is implicit in Greek philosophy but only really developed in Christianity. Any person is sacred? Even a woman? Even a slave? Even a black man? Even a homosexual? Yes, all are sacred, unique, fabulous, loved by God.

This idea immediately creates a tension between the individual and the community. Jesus tells his mother, I know you not. He abandons his family, abandons carpentry, he and his disciples drop out of society and hit the road to find the Real Me, the Kingdom of Heaven within. Christian pastors condemned baby-boomers’ restless search for personal authenticity, but if you want to find the roots of Easy Rider, look in the Gospels.

Of course, early Christianity was both radically individualist (my personal journey to God is more important than the social order) and radically communitarian. The born-again Christian is welcomed into the new family of the loving Christ, they celebrate in the love-feast, there’s lots of hugs, tears, kissing and so on. They stand in front of the community and tell their testimony. I was lost but now I’m found. I’m coming out. Cue wild applause. Very Gay Pride.

Secular liberalism, and particularly the expressive individualism of the last few decades, did not abandon this Christian narrative of personal liberation, it just secularized it.

Our favourite trope, repeated in endless movies, is the awkward outsider who eventually learns to love themselves, and then, in the climax of the movie, they reveal their new, authentic, fabulous self to the public, through a speech, a song, a dance or something. At first the public isn’t sure how to react, but then they react with wild applause. The new authentic identity of the hero is publicly affirmed. The ugly duckling is confirmed as a swan.

I’ve found the Real Me and it’s fabulous. Now love me

This trope is repeated, with variations, in films including Napoleon Dynamite, Dirty Dancing, Little Miss Sunshine, Mean Girls, About a Boy, Wedding Crashers, Jerry McGuire, Billy Elliott, Silver Linings, The Full Monty. It’s also endlessly repeated in reality TV talent shows like Britain’s Got Talent: Susan Boyle waddles on stage and then reveals herself as a nightingale.

I think that’s something of the ethos of Gay Pride. I used to be bullied at school but now here I am, I’m out and fabulous! It’s post-Christian – but the part of Loving God is now played by the Public.

Perhaps there is a tension in that recasting. God loves us no matter how rubbish we are (so Jesus says anyway). But the Public? They love us if we’re entertaining and personable. And if we’re not? Will they tire of us if our performance drags, if our make-up runs, if our jokes fall flat, if the lines start to show on our face?

Can the public’s love pick us up when we are broken? We hope so. That’s why we pour our hearts out on social media – I have depression, I have bulimia, I self-harm. This is the real, inner me, now love me. Is internet love reliable? Not entirely.

Love is Love…But as Haddaway asked, what is love? Is it something we can give ourselves? Yes, but sometimes we can’t. Is it something we get from our parents? Ideally, but not always. Is it something the public can give us? Yes, but sometimes they don’t. Is it something that genuinely transcends the social order and the fickleness of public opinion, something that transcends how well we perform, how well we strut our stuff on the catwalk of life?

I hope so. I still think there is something in you and me that is more than me and you – a spark of the infinite loving I AM which some call God – and it is this spark which makes us all both worthy of love and capable of giving love. It is the sparkling glitter of consciousness. which exists in men, women, children, slaves, Jews, Gentiles, atheists, homosexuals, and other animals.

So, Christians, if the Gay Liberation movement annoys you, blame St Augustine. Blame Jesus. Or, alternatively, celebrate Pride as the latest riff in a long history of Christian and post-Christian improvisation. I wonder in what unimaginable manger the Holy Spirit will turn up next?

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What UK universities can learn from the US about promoting well-being

A diagram from Donald Harward on the purposes of higher education

 

As regular readers will know, I’ve begun a new research focus, looking at well-being in higher education. British universities have started to focus on this issue a lot more, spurred by worrying headlines about an ‘epidemic of mental illness on campus’. But, judging by the events I’ve attended so far, universities don’t yet get the complexity of this issue, and see it simply in terms of increasing funding for counselling.

This last week, I came across a collection of essays – Well-Being and Higher Education: A Strategy for Change and the Realization of Education’s Greater Purposes – by a group of American academics. It suggests to me that the US is way beyond the UK in its thinking on this topic.

First, the authors take well-being seriously as a core purpose of higher education, rather than something one farms out to counselling services at the campus periphery. Secondly, they understand the importance of knowing the history of higher education as you try to re-frame its purpose. Third, they recognize the philosophical complexity of defining and measuring well-being. And fourth, they’re prepared to try out innovative interventions. British universities are way behind on all four of these issues.

  1. Taking well-being seriously as a core purpose of higher education

The collection begins with an essay by the editor, Donald Harward, a philosopher who was president of Bates College and now heads up an institute called Bringing Theory to Practice. He called for American higher education to ‘recognize well-being as an inextricable, but not sole, dimension of higher education’s greater purpose’. 

Other American universities have embraced well-being as part of their mission. In 2013, Georgetown University President John DeGioia described the university’s responsibility to our students as the following: “Our explicit way of supporting young people engaged in the most important work in which they can be engaged: learning to know themselves and identifying the conditions that will provide for an authentic, flourishing life.”

The same year, George Mason University included well-being as one of twelve strategic goals in its 2015-2025 strategic plan. Nance Lucas and Paul Rogers from George Mason write: ‘Our vision at George Mason University is to become a model “well-being university”—a place at which students, faculty, and staff learn what it means to have lives well-lived and how to respond well to a full range of emotions and challenges.’ Note that George Mason seeks to promote not just student well-being, but the well-being of faculty, staff and the wider community. 

Several other senior American academics put forward well-being, flourishing or virtue as a core purpose of higher education in the collection. In British universities, by contrast, one rarely hears well-being, flourishing, purpose or virtue mentioned as a central purpose of higher education.

2. It’s important to know the history of higher education if you want to re-frame its purpose

The authors in the collection understand the importance of knowing the history of higher education if you want to re-frame its purpose. As Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, writes: ‘Lacking historical perspective, one cannot even be sure whether “new” proposals are truly new or merely nostrums that have been trotted out before with disappointing results.’

It’s important to understand that universities’ focus on well-being is not an entirely new thing, that universities have focused on character and well-being before in their 2500-year history. In fact, the primary aim of universities until the mid-19th century was explicitly to ‘discipline the mind and build the character of students’ (Bok again). But it wasn’t exactly a golden age of education. Bok writes

Until the Civil War, colleges in the United States were linked to religious bodies and resembled finishing schools more closely than institutions of advanced education. Student behavior was closely regulated both inside and outside the classroom, and teachers spent much of their time enforcing regulations and punishing transgressors. Rules of behavior were written in exquisite detail. Columbia’s officials took two full pages merely to describe the proper forms of behavior during compulsory chapel. Yale turned “Sabbath Profanation, active disbelief in the authenticity of the Bible, and extravagant [personal] expenditures” into campus crimes…

Most courses were prescribed in a curriculum that usually included mathematics, logic, English, and classics, with a heavy dose of Latin and Greek. In a typical class, students recited passages from an ancient text under the critical eye of the instructor. Although many colleges offered courses in the sciences, such as astronomy or botany, classes were taught more often by invoking Aristotle and other authorities than by describing experiments and the scientific method. By most accounts, the formal education was sterile.

As a culminating experience, most colleges prior to the Civil War offered a mandatory course for seniors on issues of moral philosophy, often taught by the president himself. Ranging over ethical principles, history, politics, and such issues of the day as immigration, slavery, and freedom of the press, this capstone course served multiple objectives. It set forth precepts of ethical behavior, it prepared students for civic responsibility, and it brought together knowledge from several fields of learning. For many students, it was the high point of an otherwise dull and stultifying education.

The purposes of higher education then gradually changed. In the mid-19th century, American universities followed German counterparts in focusing more on research and PhDs, and launching institutions like Johns Hopkins that were purely research-focused. By the early 20th century, most Protestant universities no longer had enforced chapel or Bible study. But many still tried to form the character of their students through compulsory courses in moral education or Great Books. That idea – of giving students a taste of the best of western culture, giving them an opportunity to form a life-philosophy – has never entirely gone away in American universities, and many still offer courses in Great Books.

However, the popularity of this sort of liberal education has been eroded by three things. Firstly, since the 1960s, the percentage of the population going to college has risen from around 5% to around 40%. University populations have become much more diverse – attracting more women, ethnic minorities and international students. And it’s become more expensive. Students have become more pragmatic in what they want from a college education – Derek Bok notes that ‘since 1970, the percentage of freshmen who rate “being very well off financially” as an “essential” or “very important” goal has risen from 36.2 to 73.6%, while the percentage who attach similar importance to “acquiring a meaningful philosophy of life” has fallen from 79 to 39.6%.’  With a much more diverse student body, a ‘wisdom curriculum’ mainly or entirely constituted of Dead White Men has come to be seen as problematic.

3) Defining and measuring well-being is philosophically complex

Because of growing concerns about the value of mass higher education, university bosses have increasingly looked for ways to define and measure success, to prove they’re succeeding. Bok notes:

The more objective and measurable the goals, the more attractive they will seem to those in charge. As a result, presidents and trustees frequently look to such tangible signs of progress as growth in the size of the endowment, or gains in the average SAT or ACT scores, or new buildings built and new programs begun. Such achievements do not necessarily reflect genuine improvement in teaching, learning and research. But in the absence of better measures, they seem to offer concrete evidence of forward movement and success.

For example, a commission set up by President Obama defined success based on graduation rates and the earnings of graduates. In the UK, notoriously, Gordon Brown’s government tried to measure universities’ success at achieving ‘impact’ on society, while the present government is attempting to measure teaching excellence. None of these measurements are entirely satisfactory, and the Research Excellence Framework introduced by Brown seems to be actively harmful. As Bok notes: ‘Some of the essential aspects of academic institutions – in particular, the quality of the education they provide – are largely intangible and their results are difficult to measure.The result is that much of what is most important to the work of colleges and universities may be neglected, undervalued or laid aside in the pursuit of more visible goals.’

If well-being is embraced as a core purpose by universities, how will it be defined, and can it be measured? This is not a simple question. In the UK, for example, the debate (one might say furore) over campus well-being is driven by frightening but somewhat meaningless statistics, like the NUS survey that showed 78% of students experienced mental health issues. That sounds terrifying, but those issues could be everything from a panic attack to a hangover to a full-blown psychotic episode.

The authors of Well-Being in Higher Education at least seem to understand this is not a simple issue. In fact, several different definitions of well-being are put forward – hedonic well-being (ie feeling good); eudaimonic well-being (defined by Carol Ryff as ‘purpose in life, environment mastery, positive relationships, autonomy, personal growth and self-acceptance); thriving (defined as ‘engaged learning, social connectedness, diverse citizenship and positive perspective’.

There is a recognition that well-being – if defined in an Aristotelian or eudaimonic sense – will probably involve teaching character virtues. Derek Bok suggests developing character is one of the central roles of a university. Barry Schwartz suggests universities should teach the ‘intellectual virtues’: love of truth, honesty, fair-mindedness, humility, perseverance, courage, good listening, perspective taking, empathy, and above all, wisdom, which Schwartz suggests is the ‘master-virtue’. (By the by, the Oxford philosopher Nigel Biggar has also suggested that a central purpose of universities is to teach intellectual and social virtues). Alexander Astin notes that university seems to improve students’ spirituality, and in particular their capacity for the virtue of equanimity – a key virtue in Buddhism and Stoicism. He notes: 

As part a recent national study of college students’ spiritual development, we devised measures of five spiritual qualities, one of which seems especially pertinent to well-being. We call it equanimity. Students with high equanimity scores say they are able to and meaning in times of hardship, feel at peace, see each day as a gift, and feel good about the direction of their lives. Equanimity actually shows positive growth during the college years. Equanimity is most likely to show positive growth when students participate in charitable activities (service learning, donating money to charity, helping friends with personal problems) or when they engage in contemplative practices (meditation, prayer, reflective writing, reading sacred texts). 

Clearly, there are multiple ways universities can define and measure well-being: happiness, freedom from anxiety, purpose in life, equanimity, belonging, connectedness, social conscience and so on. Not all of these are measurable, and those that are might not always be a good guide to success: a university might have a high sense of student belonging because it does not have a very diverse student body. It may be worth measuring multiple factors – as the Healthy Minds survey does – and then using them as helpful tools rather than rigid benchmarks.

4) Innovative interventions 

Finally, the authors in the collection suggest several innovative ways to enhance well-being in universities. In the UK, universities tend to see well-being just as a mental health issue, to be approached through counselling, peer-to-peer training or technology. That’s such a narrow and instrumental way to view it. American universities, perhaps because of their history of liberal arts education, have a much broader and more intellectually-interesting way of approaching it. Several universities offer courses in Positive Psychology, for example, or contemplative studies, or Great Books courses, or courses in moral philosophy or ‘the art of living’ – such general curriculum courses barely exist in UK universities.

Other interventions discussed in the book include:

Engelhard courses at Georgetown University: as part of its commitment to well-being, the university seeks to include modules related to well-being in several different curricula, from biology to history. Riley and Elmendorf write: ‘In foundations of biology, students are required to write a research paper in which students explore the genetic and environmental bases of a mental families and friends directly, so in our predominantly 18–19 year-old population, we often see papers on addiction, depression, anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity literature and leverage their nascent knowledge of foundational molecular, genetic, and during face-to-face time in the course and in an online environment. Collectively, the Engelhard project has reached 15,126 students in 358 courses over the ten-year period of 2005 to 2015. More than one-third of our first year students take Engelhard courses

Well-being courses involving the sciences and humanities: James Pawelski, a professor in Positive Psychology at Penn University, notes that well-being can be explored and promoted using both the social sciences and the humanities. He notes, for example, that CBT techniques could be taught with reference to Stoic philosophy (something I’ve taught for the last few years), and that flourishing could be taught through literary studies (he co-authored a book on the ‘eudaimonic turn’ in literary studies). Courses in contemplation can also combine both the sciences (the science of mindfulness) with the humanities (the culture and ethics of Buddhism, for example)

Contemplative studies: Mark Edmundson suggests higher education should promote the virtues of ‘courage, contemplation and compassion’, through such contemplative practices as reflective writing, deep reading, quietness, meditation and poetry.

Volunteering and social work: the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) has a programme called LEAP, which aims to help students’ development through initiatives like ‘service and community-based learning’. I’ll write in the next few days about a similar project in some UK universities, called ‘Open Minds’, where medical and psychology students deliver mental health education in local schools.

Focus on mentoring and relationships: the key finding of a recent study, How College Works by Daniel Chambliss and Christopher Takacs, is that relationships matter more to student thriving than curricula:

At a liberal arts college in New York, the authors followed a cluster of nearly one hundred students over a span of eight years. The curricular and technological innovations beloved by administrators mattered much less than the professors and peers whom students met, especially early on. At every turning point in students’ undergraduate lives, it was the people, not the programs, that proved critical. Great teachers were more important than the topics studied, and even a small number of good friendships—two or three—made a significant difference academically as well as socially.

Barry Schwartz also thinks the intellectual virtues are best passed on to students through relationships, particularly through emulation and modelling: ‘We are always modeling. And the students are always watching. We need to do it better. A good start would be to do it deliberately and not by accident.’

There is so much more one could consider if well-being is taken seriously by universities: the importance of sports, of the aesthetics of a campus, of having places of beauty and quiet to enhance reflection, of marking development with rites of passage. Not to mention the fierce debates over feelings of belonging and safety for women, ethnic minorities, trans students, or white working-class male students (a minority particularly badly-served by British universities).

But this collection shows, encouragingly, that American universities are taking well-being seriously, understanding the historical and philosophical complexity of the issue, and thinking about constructive ways to promote it. We in British universities can learn a lot from their experiences.