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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

‘You’re OK. You’re alright. You’re loved.’

On Wednesday afternoon I was walking up the Holloway Road in the pouring rain when I saw a body lying in a heap beneath the bus shelter. Two Japanese tourists were staring at it. I crouched down next to the body. It was a girl, maybe 18. Her jumper was covered in mud and she was sobbing.
‘Are you OK?’
She ignored me, and carried on sobbing. She was a mess, snot dribbling down her nose, eyes squeezed shut behind her thick glasses.
‘Are you OK love?’
‘I want Zoe!’ she sobbed, not looking at me. ‘Does Zoe care about me?’
My first thought was she was a teenager having a breakdown. Maybe her first psychotic episode, her reality suddenly crumpling like a screwed-up newspaper.
‘Can we call your parents?’
‘No! I don’t want to be sectioned. I want Zoe!’
She pulled out a packet of cigarettes, sending them spinning across the wet pavement.
Another passer-by came up, a middle-aged lady. ‘Is she alright? Is she drunk?’
‘I think she’s having some sort of psychotic episode’, I said quietly.
‘Should we call am ambulance?’
‘We could…although then she might be sectioned, it might make it worse. Let’s try and call her family.’
Friends were calling her on the phone. I saw one text flash up: ‘Just tell me that you’re OK.’
She answered one call. Her voice went from wheedling to screaming. ‘Jessie, it’s Chrissy. Do you care about me? Do you? WELL WHY DON”T YOU? I WANT ZOE!’
We tried to persuade her to call her family but she ignored us. The middle-aged lady hunched down and tried to speak into her phone to tell the friend where Chrissy was. ‘Hello? Can you come to the bus stop outside Sainsbury’s on Holloway Road and help your friend?’
Chrissy leaned over to be sick.
‘Do you think she might have taken an overdose?’
‘Maybe. We should call an ambulance.’
At this the girl got to her feet and staggered down the road. She veered into the Edward Lear pub.
I called an ambulance. ‘It’s a girl, maybe 18, she’s really drunk, and I think she has mental health problems. She may have taken an overdose.’
‘And she’s in the pub now?’
‘Yes…she’s gone into the toilet.’
The emergency services said an ambulance would take around 45 minutes.
Chrissy lurched out of the pub, propped up by the bar-maid, a small resilient-looking lady who couldn’t have been more than 20 herself. I thought she might be throwing Chrissy out but she was trying to prevent her from leaving.
‘I want to go!’
‘You can’t go love, just stay here.’
Chrissy tried to light another cigarette. She looked like a distressed mole, her eyes screwed up, oblivious of the world around her, in a tunnel of her own misery.
‘She can’t go’, the barmaid said to us. ‘She says she wants to kill herself. She’s got marks all over her arms. Just sit down here Chrissy.’
‘I’ve called an ambulance, they’ll be here in 45 minutes.’
There were now four of us sitting round Chrissy as she sat on the pub bench, chain-smoking. The bar-maid brought her a hot chocolate. Chrissy tried repeatedly to call a crisis help line that was saved on her phone, but she was too drunk to communicate.
‘Are you sure you don’t want to call your parents Chrissy?’
‘They don’t love me. My dad doesn’t love me and my step-mom hates me.’
‘Im sure they don’t’, I said hopefully.
A man was sitting at another of the pub’s outdoor tables with a pint. He was maybe 40, in a white polo shirt, and looked semi-neanderthal. ‘What’s going on?’ he said. He pointed a finger at me and narrowed his eyes. ‘You should know better.’
‘Getting a young girl drunk.’
‘I was just walking past, I don’t know her!’
‘What’s wrong with her?’ he said. He crouched down next to her and put a hand on her knee. ‘Here, Chrissy, Chrissy…listen to this song.’ He clapped his hands and started to wiggle his hips. ‘Fogggy daaaay in London toooown!’
‘Don’t touch me!’ said Chrissy.
He fixed me with a look of pure stupidity. ‘You should know better. You wanna watch it. I hurt people for a living.’
The rain dripped down our faces. It was a miserable moment. Chrissy was trying to light another cigarette. The bar maid lit one too. So did the middle-aged lady. I thought about asking one of them for a cigarette but it didn’t feel appropriate.
‘What’s wrong with her?’ asked the man. ‘Let’s get her inside. Come on.’ He more or less grabbed Chrissy.
‘I think just leave her here’, I said. ‘So she can smoke.’
He gave me an evil look. ‘You’re not a big man’, he said. ‘I’m a big man. Watch it.’
‘Shall we call the police?’ asked the bar-maid. ‘They might get here quicker.’
I know what she meant. I was worried the man was going to kick off. He was worse than Chrissy.
‘Call the police’, said Chrissy. ‘I want the police!’
A police car drove past. ‘There’s the police, flag them down!’
The man wandered out into the middle of the Holloway Road, waving his arms. The police car drove on. He stayed in the middle of the road, like a swimmer adrift in a river.
‘He’s doing my head in’, said the bar-maid. Me too. He was trying to help, sort of.
Chrissy tried to leave, but we shepherded her back to the bench. Finally the ambulance arrived. The bar-maid explained the situation, told them that Chrissy was apparently known to the crisis helpline in Highgate. They helped her into the ambulance.
‘It’s so sad’, said the bar-maid. ‘She’s just a young girl.’
It was another transcendent moment on the Holloway Road, that boulevard of unremitting joy. Outside that very pub a year earlier, I’d seen a man get his head kicked in. On evenings, you went to sleep serenaded by police helicopters buzzing overhead.
Holloway Road can make you feel what a mess, what a total fucking mess humans are.
But at least four people stopped and spent an hour trying to help Chrissy.


Everyone is mental. Everyone is broken. Everyone is fucked.  And everyone is OK.

That’s what I believe on a good day. That beneath our broken, battered, fucked up egos, there is something more – sparkling consciousness, depths of loving wisdom, a force more powerful than we realize, more infinite.
That’s what Christianity teaches us, and Islam, and Judaism, and Buddhism, and Hinduism, and Platonism and Stoicism. That we have an infinity of love and wisdom within us.
Within and beneath our brokenness is a shining white light, which is both ‘me’ and more than me. Our souls have the capacity to reflect and contain the infinite, like a puddle of rain reflecting the moon.
The most powerful message that all spiritual traditions have to tell us was said to me by an 80-year-old Zen master in Tamil Nadu.
You’re OK. You’re alright. Be kind to yourself.
It’s pretty much the same thing a therapist says. ‘You’re OK. You’re alright. Be kind to yourself.’
Why are you so cruel to yourself? You’re wonderful.
So much of our suffering comes from the feeling we’re not OK, we’re not lovable, nobody loves us, our parents don’t love us, Zoe doesn’t love us, we don’t love ourselves. We hate ourselves.
You’re OK. You’re alright. You’re loved. Be kind to yourself.
Loved by what? I asked the Zen master. Or who?
He was an ex-Jesuit, who’d converted to Zen but was still sort of Christian.
He spoke a lot about opening to ‘the emptiness’. But can the emptiness love us? Can the emptiness hold us when we’re lying in a heap under a bus-stop?
The emptiness is not nothingness, he said. That’s the mystery. That’s the grace.
He said the way beyond the ego is not to deny ourselves or be cruel to ourselves, but to try and love ourselves and love one another. Otherwise when we open to the infinite it terrifies us and can send us mad.
We need to love ourselves, love the broken, wounded imperfect people we are. We are finite, imperfect, paranoid, mortal beings sprawled on a pavement in Archway on a wet Wednesday afternoon. And we are the infinite, sparkling with loving wisdom like the waves on a sunlit ocean.
We are broken. We are mental. And we are OK. We are loved.
That’s what I sometimes feel, on a good day. Right now I’ve locked myself out of my flat, and I’m sitting in a cafe, looking out at the rain on the Holloway Road.