Pontificating about pontificating is a deplorable habit in any website; and the millionaire self-help “philosopher” Alain de Botton seems to be so thoroughly hated in literary circles that there may be little use in shovelling on another helping of dung; but following the brief, nightmarish peep at his ambitions for England’s universities which we were treated to earlier in the evening, I think that a few snorts of outrage are permissible. de Botton had been invited to deliver BBC Radio 4’s A Point of View – the Any Questions’ equivalent of a post-coital cigarette – and within his allotted ten minutes of airplay, and speaking as always in the calculatingly soothing tone of a doctor who is about to stick a needle in your arm, de Botton laid out his apocalyptic vision for English universities.
de Botton redefines the “new dark age” of reduced university funding as an opportunity. If academics now “blame” and “scorn” the government for ushering in “new age of philistinism,” then de Botton thinks that they have only themselves to blame, as “the way culture is currently taught in universities is a travesty of its real potential,” rendering those looming cuts “understandable, if not at all nice.” de Botton points out where everybody is going wrong:
we should look to novels and historical narratives to impart moral instruction and edification; to great paintings for suggestions about value; to philosophy to probe our anxieties and offer consolations. It should be the job of a university education to tease out the therapeutic and illuminative aspects of culture, so that we can emerge from a period of study as slightly less disturbed, selfish, unempathetic and blinkered human beings, who can be of greater benefit not only to the economy, but also to our friends, our children, and our spouses.
Speaking only for myself, I cannot recall being noticeably disturbed and selfish before I went to university, but we can only go forward with de Botton’s argument if we assume that most students, if not everybody, are emotionally incomplete or imbecilic. de Botton’s vision for new universities can only benefit from vagueness, but he unwisely ventures into further detail. He suggests that, “departments should be required to identify the problematic areas in people’s lives and to design courses that address them head on… there should be classes in… being alone, reconsidering work, improving relationships with children, reconnecting with nature and facing illness.” Universities should “offer up advice on how to chose a career or survive the end of a marriage, how to contain sexual impulses or cope with the news of a medical death sentence.” Presumably, there would be no need for exams in the new system: once the courses were over, the lecturers would simply throw open the doors and their enlightened graduates would pour out into the world to begin reconnecting with children and dying with contentment.
It seems that only Humanities graduates can become functional human beings, leaving an emotionally retarded underclass to run factories, build bridges, and further the economy. One may have assumed that the primary school is the institution best equipped to teach children about how to conduct themselves in society – and that this has the additional benefit of catering for the whole population – but de Botton insists that fulfilment can only really be picked up from adult books. But it depends very much on the right sort of books. de Botton first concedes that, “our universities may well be teaching us the right books, but too often they fail to ask direct questions of them,” but he then charges the current regime with being “fatefully in love with ambiguity, they trust in the absurd modernist doctrine that great art should have no moral content or desire to change its audience.”
When it comes to literature, however, then unfortunately Moby Dick has no obvious moral content; Philip Larkin cannot help you to choose a career; Henry James and Jean Genet would come to rather different conclusions on how to “contain sexual impulses,” and our literary tradition is rendered only interesting by its ironies, ambiguities, conflict, disagreement, and its sheer inability to come up with easy answers. Is Desdemona or Iago the most sympathetic character in Othello? Should Frederic Henry have bid Farewell to Arms? Is Ulysses a great novel or a disastrous mess? That students will never cease to debate such questions is the defining characteristic of a literary tradition which is intrinsically and thankfully intolerant of didacticism.
By the time that they reach university, students should be striving to reimagine the world, whilst their tutors should be helping them to find their voice. If the university “has precious little interest in teaching us any emotional or ethical life skills,” this is because it should be listening carefully and critically to its students rather than telling them what to think. At times, de Botton’s A Point of View sounds more fulsomely philistine than a whole army of rampaging Visigoths. He concludes with the line that, “Oprah Winfrey may not provide the deepest possible analysis of the human condition, but arguably in my view she asks many more of the right questions than the Humanities Professors at Oxford [incidentally, I think that de Botton went to Cambridge].” When a student beholds a great work of art, they should sense the dread and the beauty of soaring cathedrals, and once the truth of their own complete insignificance has faded, they should be desperate to contribute something of their own to creation. Leave therapy to the quacks.