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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Why is Britain falling out of love with Valentine’s Day?

Celebration of the “Hallmark holiday” is at an all-time low in the UK.

A recent YouGov poll found that only four in ten Britons will be celebrating Valentine’s Day this year. And – perhaps more tellingly, if, like me, you believe that Hollywood has a shrewd grip on the nuances of Britain’s collective attitude – this year’s Valentine’s Day romcom isn’t the usual boy-meets-girl love story, but a film about being single.

So are we falling out of love with Valentine’s Day? And why? It may be partially down to the financially independent self-proclaimed Bridget Jones generation. We’re living longer and doing it on our own; we’re all a bit more relaxed about the search for our significant other (and probably less inclined to say “significant other”).

Unmarried adults are now a majority for the first time, according to analysis of the 2011 census. In fact, the number of people living alone globally has increased by around 80 per cent in the 15 years leading up to 2011.

We’re marrying and having children later than we used to, divorcing with wild abandon and using apps to bring more efficiency to our dating lives. I’m 26, and I still feel panicky when someone chooses to take on any more responsibility than a Twitter account. But it was completely normal for my parents’ generation to be having babies at this age.

Our increasingly casual ways might just have rubbed off on our dating lives – in spite of apps supposedly making dating more accessible. An impressive 72 per cent of people would rather stay in and watch Netflix than go out, according to a recent study. OK, so that’s according to Netflix – but there’s no denying that we have been staying in and forgoing dating a lot more since that old recession.

One survey found that 59 per cent of men think Valentine’s Day is pointless. And of those remaining, one fifth think the most important aim of the day is to “get laid”. But men – and filmmakers – aren't the only ones to dislike the “Hallmark holiday”.

The burgeoning anti-Valentine’s movement – rebranding the day according to our beliefs – has the potential to kick more retailers to the curb than supermarkets’ enthusiasm for horsemeat (but more of that in my “Valentine’s gift guide for her” piece).

Bounce nightclub has run an anti-Valentine's party in London for the last three years, where the “bounce games gurus” dressed in their “love police” uniforms punish any “romance rebels” who don't abide by the strict anti-Valentine’s Day rules.

These rules include: no flowers, hearts, public displays of affection, emotional outbursts, pet names, sharing dessert, winking or whispering. And I’m assuming drugs are prohibited – no one wants to be tripping when they’re already in a room full of pretend police arresting people for unlawful eyelid movements.

But Bounce says its event has always sold out, and a spokesperson attributes its popularity to people increasingly preferring to socialise in groups, rather than in couples:

“Looking at sales this year, interest is far from dwindling. In general, there's been an increase in interest for group events as opposed to the traditional Valentine's event designed for couples.”

Another growing Valentine’s alternative is “Galentine’s Day”, which originated in 2010 from the show Parks and Recreation and is growing in popularity. The idea behind it is to celebrate the platonic love of female friendships in whatever way you and your gal pal wish.

This seems to be more positive rebrand of the single women’s Valentine’s boycott seen in the Friends episode of burning boyfriend memorabilia.

Last February, student Amelia Horgan helped to organise a very different anti-Valentine's Day party with her student union, as a fundraiser for her university’s local rape crisis centre. “The thinking behind it was that Valentine’s Day can be a really alienating experience for those of us who don’t, and don’t want to, match the standards of heteronormative romance,” she tells me. 

The party, she says, was “an alternative event that's much more fun than forgetting to book a reservation for dinner and sitting across from someone you've grown to silently resent, or sitting at home feeling worthless because you haven’t got a date”.

Perhaps a day celebrating traditional love is becoming more and more incongruous alongside an increasing openness towards discussing gender and sexuality.

We’re talking more about how sexuality transcends definition – a discussion that peaked in popular culture with model Cara Delevingne’s comments last year on the fluidity of sexuality. And then there’s Jayden Smith, who is becoming frontman for the increasingly blurred gender lines in fashion.

Valentine’s Day as we know it might be wilting, but I can’t help feeling more love for our willingness to replace it with something more fitting.