Alain de Botton: Education is what makes us fully human

Continuing our What Makes Us Human series, Alain de Botton attacks the notion only skills, not wisdom, can be taught. This is a mistake, he argues. Philosophy, literature, history, art and film can prepare us for life's most difficult challenges.

I want to suggest that what makes us fully human is education. Education gets taken seriously in our society. Politicians speak about it constantly, as do other public figures. At the moment, the consensus is that education needs to get better, by which people mean that our exam results have to get more impressive and that we have to become more skilled at competing with other countries, especially China – and particularly in maths. In this account, the point of education is to make you a good worker, able to pull in a good salary and help the GDP of the nation.

This is a great ambition – but is it the only ambition we should have for education? I want to argue that the true purpose of education is to make us fully human. By this, I mean that education should help us with the many ways in which we end up less than we can be. Entering adult life without any technical or professional skills is a disaster, for oneself and society, but there are other, equally problematic ways to be. And the one that interests me is emotional health. I think our education system leaves us woefully unprepared for some of the really big challenges of adult life, which include:

  • how to choose a life partner;
  • how to manage a relationship;
  • how to bring up children;
  • how to know ourselves well enough to find a job we can do well and enjoy;
  • how to deal with pressures for status;
  • how to deal with illness and ageing.

If you took any of these problems to a school or university in the land, the teachers would look a bit scared and tell you to go and talk to a GP or a therapist. There are plenty of insights out there – they’re on websites and in books, films and songs – but rarely are they presented systematically to us. You can be in your late fifties by the time you finally come across stuff you needed to hear in your late teens. That’s a pity. We have constructed an intellectual world in which educational institutions rarely let us ask, let alone answer, the most serious questions of our deeper human nature. We shouldn’t be surprised at the levels of divorce, mental breakdown and sheer unhappiness in the nation. We aren’t taking these issues seriously. It’s very im - portant to know the capital of New Zealand and the constituents of the periodic table, but such facts won’t enable one to sail through life unscathed.

What we need above all is to grow more familiar with the idea of transmitting wisdom down the generations. That’s one of the key roles of education, in my eyes.

The purpose of all education is to spare people time and error. It’s a tool whereby society attempts to teach reliably, within a few years, what it took the very brightest and most determined of our ancestors centuries of painful effort to work out.

We accept this principle when it comes to science. We accept that a university student enrolled today on a physics degree can, in a few months, learn as much as Faraday ever knew – and within a couple of years will be pushing at the outer limits of Einstein’s unified field theory. This same principle tends to meet fierce opposition when it comes to wisdom. Here educationalists often say that wisdom is not something that one person can ever teach another. But it is: there is more than enough information about overcoming folly, greed, lust, envy, pride, sentimentality or snobbishness in the canon of culture. You can find answers in philosophy, literature, history, art and film. But the problem is that this treasury is not sufficiently well filleted and skilfully dissected to get the good material out in time.

No existing secular institution sets out to teach us the art of living. Religions of course have a shot at this – they constantly want to teach us how to run a marriage or find the meaning of life. They are not wrong to do so. It’s just that more and more of us aren’t convinced by their specific explanations. What they are trying to do, however, is hugely important and something that non-believers should learn from.

In my ideal school of the future, you might learn about geography and maths, but you would also be taught about the big challenges of life: how to be a good partner, how to stay sane and how to put the small amount of time we all have on this planet to the best possible use.

These are subjects that we need to monitor with all the manic attention we currently give our maths scores. At the end of the day, they are as important, if not more so, in deciding whether this country will be a flourishing and happy place.

Alain de Botton’s most recent book is “Religion for Atheists” (Penguin, £9.99).

This article is the eleventh in our “What Makes Us Human?” series, published in association with BBC Radio 2 and the Jeremy Vine show

Accumulating "hard facts" counts . . . and so should a knowledge of what makes for balance and personal growth. Photograph: Irina Rozovsky, Untitled (One to Nothing), (2011)

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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Annie (1982): a bizarre, patriotic portrait of capitalist white America

Featuring bizarre asides about Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, Bolshevism, taxes, the Great Depression, and the commercialisation of radio. 

Thirty-five years ago this summer, the movie Annie was released. Thirty-five years later, it still makes absolutely no fucking sense. It is a bizarre, patriotic portrait of capitalist white America with bizarre asides about Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, Bolshevism, taxes, the Great Depression, and the commercialisation of radio. Are you ready, children? Then we’ll begin.

We open at Hudson St Home for Girls. We know this because there is a sign that says Hudson St Home for Girls.

Annie is leaning out of the window, singing sadly and sweetly about her imaginary parents. Her childish ideas of what adults like – “Bet they collect things like ashtrays and art” – is actually very touching. A strong open for Annie.

We do, however need to urgently talk about her hair – a strange combination of Pippi Longstocking, Bowie’s Starman-era mullet and Tom Jones curls.

Despite this misfortune, Annie seems to have absolutely bags of confidence – first singing loudly about her living parents as the only non-orphan in the home while all the other bereaved children try to peacefully cry themselves to sleep, then threatening another child three times the size of her with tiny, angry fists and cocky walk. Look at her, swanning around like Billiam Big Balls.

Annie gives no fucks. Until Dahlesque villain Miss Hannigan enters with a comedy-sized bottle of gin and a frankly iconic silk robe. She immediately threatens to outright murder all the children, and also does that high-pitched Stop copying me! mimicking voice, so there’s really nowhere more villainous for this character to go. She’s peaked.

Now for the cleaning montage: where every child reveals themselves to be a secret Olympic-level athlete.

This girl is cleaning the staircase with every single limb.

Everywhere in this orphanage is dirty, falling apart and miserable. Seemingly hundreds of girls are under the care of a single, drunk abusive guardian and get all their sustenance from a meal called “mush” (served hot and cold!). You might be thinking, Wow, seems like what this children’s home needs is some good ol’ fashioned taxpayer funding increased state intervention and government regulation! But apparently you’d be wrong!

At the end of their cleaning montage, Annie sneaks out of the home in a laundry thanks to Mr Bundles of Bundles French Style Chinese Hand Laundry. A man so aligned with his small laundry business that he seems to have been predestined for it in a striking incident of nominative determinism. Mr Bundles of Bundles French Style Chinese Hand Laundry is a stand-up guy who protects the orphans by sending them out into New York City, alone.

Annie spies her enemy: men.

But as soon as Annie is out in the world she runs into the ultimate evil: the meddling state. She just manages to escape a stern looking policeman, in order to beat up six scrawny boys with her tiny, powerful fists – a touching feminist scene. Just look at those Why I Oughta fisticuffs!

Don’t mess with the bad bitch.

After she has joyfully hurt the boys, she barely befriends a cheerful dog before the New York City Pound tries to rip it from her warm embrace. Then the stern-looking policeman is back, and Annie is frog-marched back to the home. And she would have got away with it too if it weren’t for you meddling government agents! Just look at these badge-wearing wankers.

But who is this classy broad?

Another meddling state official? The New York Board of Orphans sent her? Miss Hannigan goes into a tizzy – but never fear! The woman, Grace, insists, “I am the private secretary of Oliver Warbucks.” Yep, you heard it here, kids. Johnny Big Dollar! Geoffrey Moneybags! Hilary Capitalism-Is-The-Only-Equaliser! She’s his secretary. And private secretary at that – none of these public secretaries for millionaires.

She wants an orphan, for one week, to make Mr Warbucks look good. Annie persuades Grace to pick her, and Grace persuades Miss Hannigan to let her go. So Grace runs off with Annie to the Warbucks mansion. Oh, boy! It’s beautiful!

Pause for the awkward Inexplicably Magical Ethnic Minority stereotype. His name is “Punjab”. He doesn’t speak, but does often spontaneously dance, and can seemingly make inanimate objects levitate, control animals and fix injured body parts. This is a truly and deeply racist portrayal.

Annie is asked what she wants to do first – and thanks to years of trauma and abuse she assumes they mean which thing she should clean first. The staff chuckle warmly at these symptoms of a horrific and exploited childhood. Then they all sing about how nice this luxury mansion is and how Annie will never have to lift a finger in this house, the most soothing musical number I think I’ve ever heard. This is my safe space. Wait on me, Drake!!!

It’s also in this scene that Annie reveals she used to sleep “in a tomb”, which is pretty fucking dark for a cheerful movie musical.

Daddy Warbucks arrives and Grace runs him through his messages. “President Roosevelt called three times, sir, this morning, he said it was very urgent.” “Everything’s urgent to a Democrat!” he spits back because THIS MAN IS CLEARLY A REPUBLICAN. We get it, Daddy.

This is also the scene in which Annie asks Daddy Warbucks to “hang me in the bathroom”, which is pretty fucking weird for a cheerful movie musical.

Cut to Miss Hannigan drinking water from a vase and making out with a radio, which is pretty fucking weird for a cheerful movie musical. She launches into an amazing, three-and-a-half-minute song about how horny she is. Cool. Normal. Fine.

Her brother Rooster turns up, and maybe I’ve just been watching too much Game of Thrones, but I get extremely strong incest vibes from the pair of them. I’m convinced this film can’t get much stranger.

In the ensuing five minutes, back at the Warbucks mansion Punjab disposes of a bomb, left by a “Bolshevik” singing The Internationale. Warbucks “is living proof that the American system really works,” Grace explains to the audience Annie, “and the Bolsheviks don’t want anybody to know about that!” I love capitalism!!

Next up is a scene taking directly from my subconscious: Annie takes her dog to the movies, gets overexcited, falls asleep & is carried home by a billionaire. Everyone sings about how great it is to go to the movies with your dog and your billionaire. Suck it, La La Land.

Deep depression / What do we care? / Movies are there! The dancers sing, which is also my personal life philosophy.

Anyway, they go to see Camille (1936) which has a MESSAGE about LOVE and MONEY or something. The next morning, Grace suggests Warbucks adopt Annie. “I’m a businessman. I love money, I love power, I love capitalism, I do not now nor never will love children!” “You know, they’re never going to love you back,” says Grace. Warbucks has a sudden awakening and decides, actually, he loves Annie more than he loves money. (But he still really, really loves money.)

In one of the weirder moments of the film, Grace celebrates Annie’s adoption by singing She makes you relax / Like a big tax / Rebate! Did you even see the orphanage, Grace?! Maybe a little less rebates would mean a little more basic provisions for orphaned children!

Warbucks goes to formally adopt Annie and Miss Hannigan sings another three-minute song about how bloody horny she is. Gotta respect that level of horn. It does include lyrics about her “very wet soufflé”, but she doesn’t call him Daddy even once.

We learn Daddy Warbucks was born very poor in Liverpool but “decided” to be rich when his brother died of pneumonia as a child. By 21, he was a millionaire. The American dream works! USA! USA! USA! He says that not having someone to share his life might almost be as bad as being poor. Luckily for him he has bought the affections of a ten-year-old, so one has really led to the other. USA! USA! USA!

Annie says she’d rather find her real parents than be adopted. The hunt begins!

But first, a totally arbitrary diversion to watch the recording of a toothpaste advert. Obviously. It’s cute though.

Once that’s over, it’s obviously time to go to Washington (?!?!) to see the President (?!!). Warbucks and President Roosevelt debate 1930s New Deal Programs to create jobs for the unemployed. The President asks a ten-year-old to help him devise this social welfare programme. She responds by singing a song because, hey, she doesn’t understand the Civilian Conservation Corps, she’s ten!

Everyone sings and thinks about how great and progressive America, and centrism, are around a big oil painting of George Washington.

Meanwhile, Miss Hannigan and her brother are flirting outrageously about concocting a plan to impersonate Annie’s parents (dead, we learn) for the reward money.

Annie’s parents (Rooster and his girlfriend) turn up, collect their reward money, and take her away. Miss Hannigan gets in the car too and Annie catches on. The ragtag bunch of orphans run and tell Daddy Warbucks what’s up. Meanwhile Annie escapes from the car and we’re in that classic movie trope: car chasing orphan on railway drawbridge. Miss Hannigan suddenly seems to care for Annie’s wellbeing when Rooster starts trying to kill her, and Rooster suddenly hits his sister and knocks her out, which is pretty fucking dark for a children’s movie musical. Annie and Rooster climb extraordinarily high on the raised drawbridge.

Deeply uncomfortably, the climax of the action comes when Punjab rescues Annie from a helicopter by unwrapping his turban and using it as a rope to swing down and grab her.

With all that behind them, Annie and Daddy come together to sing about how amazing their rich lives together are. Warbucks has gone on an amazing journey of discovery to learn that money isn’t the most important thing. (The most important thing is actually money AND orphans.) I don’t need anything but you – and the enormous private circus hosted in the garden of my stupendous mansion with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in attendance! I’m rich as a Midas! Warbucks sings happily.

God Bless America!!!!

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.