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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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