Alain de Botton: “The university system is failing people”

Author Alain de Botton, talks philosophy, mental health and the education system

Alain de Botton started his career with the philosophically charged novel Essays In Love, but now his broad range of work crosses genres from architecture to psychology, and most recently has attempted to teach people to develop emotional intelligence through The School of Life. In an era of specialization, de Botton is uniquely polymathic.

In his books, and most recently his series of YouTube videos, de Botton draws upon what thinkers, and philosophers over time have argued about love, work, and purpose in life. Although this has placed him on the receiving end of criticism from traditional academics, who desire the esoteric to remain so, his unpretentious inclusion of and engagement with philosophers has helped build his large audience within a younger generation. Does he see himself mediating and interpreting the often impenetrable, like Nietzsche, to the masses? His response is surprising: “I have no real interest in Nietzsche himself, or philosophy itself, or any of these great thinkers themselves, I simply see them as a resource to exploit in order to mine potentially interesting ideas.

“Academics and the whole academic superstructure see themselves as very much having a responsibility to people who lived hundreds of years ago, and they see their life as trying to recover what so and so actually said, and what so and so actually meant.”

But, he tells me: “That’s not really my project at all, I don’t really care what they meant. What I’m more interested in is how what they said is of relevance to me and how I see the world. So I think that’s different from writing a Wikipedia entry on a thinker, which is a valuable project but not really the one I’m engaged on.

“I’m trying to develop my own thinking, by sharpening it against the insights of other people.”

In fact, de Botton sees these prohibitive “academic superstructures” across the whole university system. “I think in the humanities, the current university system fails about 60% of people, because what it does is to excite, by using these amusing cultural figures, who really did want to change the world, help us to live, and open up our eyes.

“But then the academic system more or less just kills it by forcing one to do very weird things with these people, with no idea what these cultural figures themselves were up to. Nietzsche wouldn’t have gone to university to study Nietzsche, Shelley wouldn’t have gone to university to study Shelley, it’s paradoxical that we’re doing something, which however respectful it seems, is actually a betrayal of the figures that one studies.”

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Instead, de Botton proposes “dismantling” the current university system. He would make a “big change” and “change what people are rewarded for.” “Given that most young people go to university particularly to study the humanities – broadly speaking, to learn how to live – people should be rewarded for how well they have achieved that. This would mean that they are better teachers, better writers, better communicators – not just at the level of language, but picking up on what the real sources of distress and curiosity might be in the audience that they’re dealing with. The system of incentive should be geared towards that.”

Despite his fascination with the great names of philosophy, de Botton advocates a “massively redesigned” curriculum which questions “some notional idea of the canon, which is often full of really quite peculiar choices, which hasn’t been interrogated for many, many decades.”

He views philosophy as a vehicle for public virtue: “I am keen on the concept of relevance, which is a very frightening word for most academics, because they immediately think that one means they should make some money, whereas I think it means that they should help some people.”

Despite a Double First from Cambridge, and a Masters in philosophy from King’s College London, de Botton eventually packed in his PhD in French philosophy at Harvard in favour of writing books that have sold millions of copies.

When asked what the future holds for philosophy, he did not hold back. “The future for academic philosophy is I think, very bleak. I think it’s fated to be a completely marginalized subject, studied by a few die hard people, and it will essentially have no relevance and no import to society, and that’s tragic really.

“Kant thought that philosophers should be legislators to the world, Plato thought that philosophers should become kings, Emmanuel Macron who studied under Paul Ricoeur thought philosophy was the ideal grounding for a statesman.

“There are very many people who have made grand claims for philosophy, but I don’t see those being honoured in modern academic philosophy.

“But that said, in a way the salvation might come from a slightly unusual place – which is ordinary people’s ordinary curiosity in philosophy, and that’s powered, and changed what people think philosophers might be up to.

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“Ultimately the definition of a philosopher is up for grabs, and we need to move away from the notion that a philosopher is someone who is going to tell you about Hegel and reference Descartes, and move towards a new model that a philosopher is really anyone who is trying to work through the great questions of life, and that can encompass a psychologist, an economist, even a journalist, anyone who is thinking rationally in small, logical steps with care and intelligence, is really in the meritocratic sense a philosopher.

“The professionalization of the subject, and the fetishism around referencing, has I think, been really unhelpful to the wider take up of the subject.”

De Botton’s School of Life is his attempt to change the role of philosophy in public life. It now has branches in London, Amsterdam, Paris, Melbourne and Seoul among many more around the world, and sells highly-priced hard-back books and ‘career prompt cards’.

He says despite its growth, his vision has remained consistent. “The goals are always the same, we’ve got better at what we’re doing. The main idea was to go beyond books, and create a home for ideas that might be in books as well, but give them a kind of resonant form by ensuring that they could exist in many different formats, including film or a pack of cards, or an event, or a set of programs for people in offices.

“So it’s kind of trying to amplify ideas and I’m very influenced by what religions are up to, and what impresses me is not their content but their form, and their ambition to touch us simply in a one on one experience like a book, but also to try and touch us through communal actions.”

The School of Life is now expanding its activities to include news, psychotherapy, and even a porn site. De Botton sees no limits to his vision of philosophy as a force for the common good: “Through music, through architecture, through the senses, through art, in a way to seduce us into being certain sorts of people, and that’s obviously a very dodgy sounding idea, but it’s got a lot of valuable things to it.

“So if you like, the School of Life is really an attempt to mirror some elements of religion, but using cultural content to hold people in a more engaged way through the process of living.”