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.

New Statesman
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)

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