Am I Normal?: A series of three podcasts exploring the ideas and history of “normal’.

This is a guest post by Natalie Steed who is a freelance audio producer. You can follow her on Twitter and read more about her work on her website. Natalie has produced three podcasts for the Centre inspired by the Being Human event ‘The Museum of the Normal’. The Centre’s 2017 free-at-attend contribution to Being Human is called ‘Emotional Objects: From Lost Amulets to Found Photos’ and you can register online.


How do you measure up?

Where are you on the scale?

And what about your children?

One late Autumn night, on the third floor of Barts Pathology Museum, amongst the specimens pickled in their glass jars – the tight-lacer’s liver and the bound Chinese foot – researchers from the Living With Feeling project gathered together an exhibition of living exhibits

If you’d ascended the staircase, you’d have found yourself screened for anomalies, your scalp considered by phrenologists and your lapel sporting a badge proclaiming your abnormality, before you’d even set foot through the door of the of the Museum of the Normal.

Once inside, you might have taken part in a life drawing class where the models had modified their bodies, had your measurements mapped against Francis Galton’s databanks and refreshed your sense of disgust with mealworms washed down with a cocktail based on the four humours.

These three podcasts arise out of that evening, which was a kind of carnival of stalls and talks and experiences, curated by Sarah Chaney, Helen Stark and Emma Sutton, designed to challenge and change ideas of what “normal” might be.

I recorded interviews at the event with visitors who were keen to talk about their own perspectives and abnormalities, and followed up with more in depth interviews with some of the Living With Feeling researchers presenting their work at the event. You can read more about the visitor’s responses here.

In the podcast The Museum of the Normal, these encounters and interviews interlaced with conversations with parents of young children, a group least likely, perhaps, to attend such an event but who are encouraged to consider, week by week, month by month, milestone by milestone, what is “normal” for their children.

“Stop Thinking about Death… and Stop Shouting at People”

David Saunders  invited people to take part in a restaging of a “revolutionary” therapeutic exercise called Psychic Driving. In the 1950’s the increasingly alarming experiments of Dr Donald Ewan Cameron attracted both interest and finance from the CIA.

That evening, more than seventy people stepped into David’s booth to tell their hopes, fears and the things they wanted to change about themselves to a tape recorder. He used these recordings to create a kind of group self-help tape and in the first podcast you can hear the results and an interview with David about Psychic Driving and its continuing tantalising offer.

“Death to all daft and emotional neurotypicals who love soap operas!”

One of the things that visitors wanted to speak to me about most was Bonnie Evan’s talk about the history of the idea of autism and the emerging terms “neurotypical” and “neurodivergent” used within the autistic community to challenge the idea of their own “abnormality”.

Paul and Elizabeth Wady both have an autism diagnosis.

In his book, Guerilla Aspies, and show of the same name, Paul Wady offers a conversion course for neurotypicals, inviting them to join the “new normal”.

In this podcast, they talked to me about autism and emotion, neurotypicals and neurodivergents, Blade Runner, religion and the tyranny of the normal.


Register for this year’s event online and read more about the Museum of the Normal.

Meet our PhD students: Ed Brooker

Ed Brooker began his PhD on the Living with Feeling project in October 2017.  He completed his BA in History at the University of Cambridge, and holds master’s degrees from both Durham University and Birkbeck, University of London.  His work examines the relationship between conceptions of happiness, emotional well-being, and the urban ideal in the context of late Victorian London.


As any rush hour commuter knows, metropolitan life is seldom without its stresses and strains.  For most of us, withstanding these pressures involves the ability to cling to a fundamental belief that, for all that the city might at times infuriate, impoverish, exhaust or threaten us, it offers us none-the-less the prospect of happiness.  Yet a clear definition of how that happiness should be attained –and indeed the very possibility of its attainment– is an ever-elusive thing.

Should that self-same commuter glance down at the evening press, they will undoubtedly find themselves assailed by jeremiads lamenting the pressures and anxieties of city living.   Yet the turn of the page will bring them face to face with those visions of the good life through which we might seek emotional release and contentment.  Hedonistic pleasure, consumption, the pursuit of meaning and virtue, or escape to the comforts of hearth and home – all are proffered in some form as possible solutions to our dilemmas.  And all of this at a time when government pledges to promote not only our material prosperity, but also our broader quality of life; when London’s boroughs are frequently ranked according to the latest well-being index; and when the shelves of our local bookshop groan with tomes on mindfulness, healthy eating, or the latest Scandinavian or Japanese models of contentment.

Happiness is surely one of the obsessions of our age – never more so than when it seems furthest from realisation.  Yet, as I discovered in my previous master’s work examining the diaries and journals of ordinary nineteenth-century Londoner’s, these paradoxes and preoccupations are far from new.  The idea of the city both as a machine for the production of happiness and, simultaneously, as a blight upon every human joy, are deeply rooted in nineteenth century debates regarding the urban ideal.

On the one hand, my work seeks to trace the development of these debates by placing them within the context of late Victorian and Edwardian London.  The decades between 1870 and 1914 were a crucial turning point in this regard, marked as they were by a sense of cultural, social and political upheaval which served to undermine an earlier, more naive faith in urban civilisation as a mechanism for perpetual progress.  From this crisis emerged new visions of the nature of the subjective well-being of individual Londoners, and of the metropole itself.  Yet the exact relationship between these conceptions both of happiness, and of the ideal city to which they attached, remains poorly understood.   What meanings then were given to happiness in this period?  What consequences did this have for the shape of the city and, more broadly, urban modernity itself?  And, ultimately perhaps, what legacy have these debates bequeathed to the London of the twenty-first century?

At the same time, I also hope to understand how these debates manifested themselves within everyday life.  How did individual Londoner’s seek happiness for themselves?  Did they conform to mainstream narratives, or did this search differ across individuals and communities?  In what ways were conceptions of happiness contested and given differing form?  And what lessons might the struggles of our Victorian and Edwardian forebears teach us in regard to our own search for contentment?

New publications

A round-up of publications on the history of emotions from April – August 2017.

If you would like your publication to be featured in the next quarterly round-up, please send the details (including a link to more information or the full article) to emotions@qmul.ac.uk before December 13.

An additional list of publications is also published monthly on H-emotions: https://networks.h-net.org/categories/new-publications

BOOKS.

EDITED VOLUMES.

  • Emotions in the History of Witchcraft, ed. by Laura Kounine and Michael Ostling (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017)
  • Emotion, Ritual and Power in Europe, 1200–1920, ed. by Merridee Bailey and Katie Barclay, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017)
  • Greek Laughter and Tears: Antiquity and After, ed. by M. Alexiou and D. Cairns (Edinburgh University Press, 2017)
  • Historicizing Emotions: Practices and Objects in India, China and Japan, edited by Barbara Schuler (Brill, 2017)
  • The hurt(ful) body: Performing and beholding pain, 1600-1800, edited by Tomas Macsotay, Cornelis van der Haven, Karel Vanhaesebrouck (Manchester University Press, 2017)

BOOK CHAPTERS.

  • Leah Astbury,  ‘Ordering the infant’: caring for newborns in early modern England’, in Conserving health in early modern culture: Bodies and environments in Italy and England, eds. Sandra Cavallo and Tessa Storey (Manchester University Press: Manchester, July 2017), (pp.80-103).
  • Douglas Cairns, ‘The Tripartite Soul as Metaphor’, in Plato and the Power of Images, ed. by P. Destrée and R. G. Edmonds (Brill, 2017), 219–38
  • Caroline Castiglione, ‘What to expect when you’re always expecting’; frequent childbirth and female health in early modern Italy’, in Conserving health in early modern culture: Bodies and environments in Italy and England, eds. Sandra Cavallo and Tessa Storey (Manchester University Press: Manchester, July 2017), pp. 55-79
  • Hannah Newton ‘She sleeps well and eats an egg’; convalescent care in early modern England’, in Conserving health in early modern culture: Bodies and environments in Italy and England, eds. Sandra Cavallo and Tessa Storey (Manchester University Press: Manchester, July 2017) (pp.104-132)
  • Charles Zika, ‘The Cruelty of Witchcraft: The Drawings of Jacques de Gheyn the Younger’, in Laura Kounine and Michael Ostling, eds, Emotions in the History of Witchcraft, pp. 37–56, London: Palgrave Macmillan (2017)
  • Charles Zika, ‘The Transformation of Sabbath Rituals by Jean Crépy and Laurent Bordelon: Redirecting Emotion through Ridicule’, in Merridee Bailey & Katie Barclay, eds, Emotion, Ritual and Power in Europe, 1200–1920, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 261–284 (2017).

SPECIAL ISSUES OF JOURNALS

Note that the new journal Emotions: History, Culture, and Society published its first volume in July 2017.

  • Seneca’s Tragic Passions: Philosophical and Literary Perspectives, D Cairns and D. Nelis, Maia 69.2, 2017

JOURNAL ARTICLES

EXHIBITION CATALOGUES

  • Angela Hesson, Matthew Martin and Charles Zika, eds, Love: Art of Emotion 1400–1800, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2017. 290mm x 240mm, portrait, 256 pages, Fully illustrated in colour. ISBN: 9781925432239 (hardback) $49.95, 9781925432312 (paper). $29.95.

REFERENCE

  • Douglas Cairns, ‘Emotions’, Encyclopaedia of Ancient History (online, June 2017)

Meet our PhD students: Catherine Maguire

Catherine took her BA in Modern and Medieval Languages from Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge, and her MPhil with distinction in Medieval and Early Modern European Literature from Clare College, University of Cambridge. She is originally from Northern Ireland and her academic interests lie in motherhood, female religious experience and medicine in the medieval and early modern periods. Her project explores the physical and emotional inflections of motherhood in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain.


Contemporary health and social care practitioners situate maternal processes of within both a physical and emotional framework. In addition to adopting lifestyle patterns that are conducive to good physical health, pre- and post-natal emotional wellbeing is increasingly being identified as a key factor in predicting outcomes for mothers and young children. More broadly, the emotive elements of pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing are also conditioned by the psychological stimuli of mass media, social mores and religious customs. If it is tempting to consider that the emotional upheaval of maternity is a modern construct, my thesis is concerned with the emotional dimensions of motherhood in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain. I shall examine how the holistic experience of motherhood – that is, from gestation to childbirth through the experience of parenting – was articulated as an emotionally significant experience and consider the importance of emotional factors in the construction of the maternal subject.

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain reveals a sustained preoccupation with how emotional and physical factors intersect in the construction of the maternal subject. The backdrop of the Counter-Reformation was underpinned by a renewed insistence and vigour for affective Marian veneration; in particular, insofar as her status as mother of Heaven and Earth was concerned. There existed a proliferation of didactic literature which sought to appeal to the emotional sensibilities of its readership and a general interest in medical scholarship which attempted to codify maternal medicine and situate it within a physical, emotional and social framework.

Significantly, there has been no attempt to disentangle and reconnect the emotional dimensions of motherhood with the pragmatic concerns of pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain.  There is a pressing ethical need to develop a holistic understanding of motherhood which acknowledges the affective political, social, economic and religious inflections of maternal matters. To do so will be to offer an embodied view of mental and emotional health with a view to understanding how emotional concerns shape our experience of physical (well)being. The interdisciplinary framework of my thesis will encompass life writing, gender theory, embodiment and theological considerations. This thesis will thus raise questions that resonate beyond the remit of Hispanic Studies and early modern literature.

Flourishing University seminar: audio and slides

QMUL’s Centre for the History of the Emotions hosted a half-day seminar on the Flourishing University, exploring well-being and wisdom in higher education, for students, PhDs, staff and the wider society, from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Below is the schedule of speakers along with the link to a Soundcloud audio of the sessions (two talks weren’t recorded). You can download the audio on iTunes here.

You can also download the slides below.

Session One: Introduction

Jules Evans, research fellow at Centre for the History of the Emotions: Why we need an interdisciplinary approach to flourishing in higher education

Rachel Piper, Student Minds head of policy: Co-creating a whole university approach to well-being

Dr Daniel Eisenberg, Healthy Minds Network: What universities can measure in student mental health and well-being

Edward Pinkney, Hong Kong University: Technology as a help and hindrance to student flourishing (audio not available)

Jules Evans slides; Rachel Piper slides; Daniel Eisenberg slides; Edward Pinkney slides

Audio for session 1:

Session 2: Interventions and curricula for undergrads

Dr Michael Pluess, QMUL head of psychology: Teaching well-being / character through Positive Psychology (audio not available).

Dr Oliver Robinson, University of Greenwich psychology lecturer: The transitions of higher education

Professor Nigel Tubbs, programme leader of Modern Liberal Arts at University of WInchester: Liberal arts and flourishing

Dr Karen Scott, senior lecturer in political science at University of Exeter, and Kieran Cutting, political science graduate: Teaching the good life

Dr Siobhan Lynch, researcher in mindfulness at Southampton University: Mindfulness for students

Oliver Robinson ; Teaching The Good Life slides;  Michael Pluess slidesSiobhan Lynch slides

Audio for session 2:

Session 3: The Flourishing University – Phds, staff well-being, engaging with society

Dr Amber Davis: The Happy PhD – PhD student mental health and well-being

Sally Rose, psychotherapist at Leeds University: Staff well-being in higher education

Danny Angel-Payne, public health undergraduate at QMUL: Open Minds and student volunteering in the local community

Amber Davis slidesSally Rose slides

Audio for session 3:

For more interviews and articles from the Flourishing University project, check out our blog.

History of Emotions Blog Round-Up February – August 17

Missed a post? Read our round-up covering February – August 17 (you can read previous round-ups too). Post are listed chronologically by month of publication.

February

Medical Humanities in India: a field ripe for development by Jules Evans

Sadness on the Big Screen: London SadFest March 3-5 by Åsa Jansson

Mental illness: challenging the stigma around India’s big secret by Jules Evans

Meet Our PhD Students: Jane Mackelworth by Jane Mackelworth

No love lost: Antipathy, antagonism and anger in Single magazine, 1977-1982 by Zoe Strimpel

March

Colonial Anxiety and Vulnerability in British India by Mark Condos

The ecstatic experience economy by Jules Evans

How to Keep Calm in Kolkata by Jules Evans

The Museum of the Normal – What You Said by Sarah Chaney and Helen Stark

Faces that matter: history, emotion, transplantation by Fay Bound Alberti

Emotional Experience as a Site of Agency by Jeremy C. Young

April

Autism, Neurodiversity and the ‘Neurotypicals’ by Bonnie Evans

Translating Therapy by Jules Evans

Addressing domestic abuse in general practice: The emotional labour of being a GP by Anna Dowrick

Why getting out of our heads is good for us by Jules Evans

UFOs and the Historians by Greg Eghigian

Emotions, Identity and the Supernatural: The Concealed Revealed Project by Owen Davies and Ceri Houlbrook

New Publications January – March 2017 by Sarah Chaney

May

99.9% of humans are mentally unwell by Jules Evans

Your Emotional Life in Objects by Sarah Chaney

Gut Feelings Blog Take Over: Gut Feelings Week

Gut Feelings Blog Take Over: Diet and Brain Work in Nineteenth-Century France by Manon Mathias

Gut Feelings Week: Neurasthenia – a disorder of the gut? by Kristine Lillestøl 

Gut Feelings Week: The Bitter Taste of Rationing by Kristen Ann Ehrenberger

Gut Feelings Week: Dyspepsia and Navigating Nineteenth-Century Health by Evelien Lemmens

“Ava’s Sigh” Prelude to Mood Shifts: A Sonic Repertoire by Mary Cappello

June

BadFeelings Week:

Negative Emotions: the good, the bad and the ugly by Mary Carman and Tristram Oliver-Skuse

Life’s Anxieties: Good or Bad? by Charlie Kurth

The rational value of political anger by Mary Carman

Itchy Feet: The Value of Boredom by Tristram Oliver-Skuse

Regrets, hot and cold by Carolyn Price

Why pain is not a natural kind by Jennifer Corns

Turning Jealousy into Compersion by Ronald de Sousa

Universities should try and teach wisdom, not just knowledge by Jules Evans

Fears and Angers: Contemporary and Historical Perspectives Take Over: Fears and Angers Week

What do you about anger? Pragmatism and passionate disagreement by Mara-Daria Cojocaru

Requiem for a Bad Dream: Fear of the Night, the Devil and the Nightmare in Early Modern England by Charlotte-Rose Millar

‘Silence that Dreadful Bell!’: Hearing Fear in Shakespeare’s Othello by Kibrina Davey

At the Abyss: The Phenomenon of Self-Reflexive Anxiety by Ruth Rebecca Tietjen

On Positive Psychology and the Positive University by Jules Evans

July

What UK universities can learn from the US about promoting well-being by Jules Evans

August

Anthony Seldon: Universities should promote the flourishing of students and staff by Jules Evans

Jan Plamper On the History of Emotions

This interview with Jan Plamper was originally published in Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 18, no. 3 (2017): 453–60 and is posted here with their permission. You can read the original on Kritika’s website


Jan Plamper, Professor of History at Goldsmiths, University of London, was among the first scholars in Soviet and Russian history to engage the burgeoning field of the history of emotions.

Trained in history at Brandeis University and the University of California, Berkeley, Plamper is perhaps best known for The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power (2012), a book that grew out of his PhD dissertation.[1] His first forays into the history of emotions began around 2003, with a project, still ongoing, about fear among soldiers in World War I. In those years, Plamper helped organize a series of conferences and conference panels dedicated to the history of emotions, resulting in three collective publication ventures: a special issue of Slavic Review and two co-edited volumes, Rossiiskaia imperiia chuvstv: Podkhody k kul´turnoi istorii emotsii (In the Realm of Russian Feelings: Approaches to the Cultural History of Emotions) and Fear: Across the Disciplines.[2] Plamper also organized and participated in two printed round tables with leading participants in the emotions field: Peter Stearns, Barbara Rosenwein, William Reddy, Nicole Eustace, Eugenia Lean, and Julie Livingston.[3]

As early as 2009, Plamper could point to a large set of imperial Russian and Soviet historians who made active use of emotions as a historical category in print: Mark D. Steinberg, Catriona Kelly, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Árpád von Klimó, Malte Rolf, Ronald Grigor Suny, Glennys Young, and Alexander Martin.[4] Since then, the field has expanded considerably, with historians continuing to find use in interdisciplinary approaches, drawing from anthropology, sociology, psychology (including neuroscience), and philosophy.[5] Yet no Russian or Soviet historian has gone farther in investigating the history of emotions—and the history of the history of emotions—than Plamper himself, whose German-language monograph was translated into English as The History of Emotions: An Introduction.[6]

Plamper’s leading role in developing the history of emotions in the Russian/Soviet context and his personal experience as an interlocutor among the academic cultures of four countries—the United States, Russia, Germany, and Britain—make him a perfect person to discuss these issues. Alongside his current work on fear in World War I, Plamper is writing a popular history of migration to West and East Germany after World War II. The book concentrates on the life stories of individuals to capture the experiences of various groups and generations of immigrants, ultimately aiming to furnish a “usable past” for the new Germany emerging from the Syrian refugee crisis.

* * *

Though the phrase “history of emotions” has become dominant in designating a new scholarly field in Anglophone literature, historians have also used various other terms to designate their topics: most notably, feeling and affect. Does the choice of term matter, or are we playing with words?

“Emotions” is the best choice, because it includes dimensions of appraisal, signification, object-directedness, and consciousness—what these dimensions mean will become clear in a moment. “Emotions” can be replaced by “feelings,” terms that are synonymous in current English. By contrast “affects,” especially in affect theory—a cross-disciplinary field in cultural, literary, visual, and so on studies—have come to designate nonconscious, nonsignified, inchoate states that are neither directed at an object (fear of what?) nor subject to volition or evaluation.[7] In the classroom I demonstrate the difference between emotion/feeling and affect by suddenly clapping my hands. The milliseconds it takes my students to evaluate the audial stimulus of my clapping hands and to determine that it does not pose a threat to their survival are the time in which affect is operative: their bodies are on high alert, their pupils dilate, their hearts race; they cannot yet think, let alone articulate verbally what their bodies are doing, what they are feeling. Or to use the classic example of the encounter with a snake in the woods, in affect theory the snake is a stimulus per se, constituting a threat to my life because it posed a threat in the distant past. It is an evolutionary vestige. It activates the amygdala in the old, limbic part of my brain. It is nonsignifying; it is not connected to a sexual-biographical episode in my own life, as Freudians might have it (representing, for instance, the penis with which my uncle raped me when I was a ten-year-old). Nor does my appraisal or attention play any role—the fact that I have been a snake lover since visiting the terrarium at the Boston Zoo as a seven-year-old.

Now, as you say, the question is, whether the choice of terms matters for historians. Do we need to define emotion? Can we not just use “perturbations of the soul,” “passions,” “affections,” whichever metaterminology people in the past used to talk about their feelings? The gut reaction you will encounter among a lot of historians—let’s call them vulgar social constructionists—is, “oh well, let us use the terms historical actors used, we do not need a metadefinition.” But how, then, can we do history, how can we designate something that is stable and study its changes across time? How can we track—for instance, in a lexical conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte)—the shift in meaning of the word boiazn´ in Slovar´ russkogo iazyka XVIII veka and strakh in the third edition of Bol´shaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia without assuming a core commonality between these terms?[8] Without that commonality we cannot trace any “shifts” or “changes”: these presuppose the existence of a single metaconcept. We can only speak of two radically disparate words that refer to radically different things.

In short, with history as currently practiced—I word this carefully because I am not making an absolute claim, only a claim about the current conventions of history, which may well change in the future—we need a referent outside language. Consider Carla Hesse here: “realism, as a philosophical stance, is a necessary foundation for any empirical claim to be able to reconstruct facts from evidence and to claim that language (and more broadly any system of signification—visual, textual or aural) has a denotative as well as a connotative function. That language is at some level referential (that it refers to something outside itself, albeit contingently) is critical, moreover, if one is to be able to make sustainable general claims—about culture, or about any other aspect of human existence.”[9] So we are back at the old issue of nominalism: history, as practiced today, is antinominalist. And so yes, we are playing with words, but all play is serious business.

In the introduction to your co-edited volume Fear: Across the Disciplines, you appear to call into question whether indeed a feeling or experience such as fear can be “understood as a stable, enduring experience across time” (10). Does it make sense for historians to write the history of states of mind such as fear, anger, or shame across decades or centuries? Or can we at best hope to study their influence or cultural valence at specific points in time?

The question is, with due respect, mal posée, and this criticism applies to Ben and myself when we wrote what you cite in our Fear volume. This is a good opportunity to show with concrete examples what I mean by antinomalism in my response to the first question. The problem is with “at best”—we here have a dichotomy of experience (states of mind) and expression (influence or cultural valence), a dichotomy that usually goes along with adjectives like “real” on the experience side, localizations “deep inside” the body, and the idea that this is pure, true subjectivity, where I am truly “I” (you don’t know my feelings!) and dissimulation, “display rules,” “mere” social norms, and the like on the other side. Ultimately it goes back to the nature vs. culture dichotomy that emerged in the 18th century. As so many have shown, this dichotomy is obsolete, the two are not separate (and were not separate before the 18th century), and its intellectual bequest is toxic. Recovering its holistic roots and assailing it with certain strands of philosophy or Bill Reddy’s emotive (which holds that emotional utterances are both constative and performative, that they both describe and change the world: when I say “I am happy” I describe a state and exact a change on this state) allows us to move beyond the dichotomy.[10] Cultural valences have feedback loop effects on “states of mind”; the two are inextricably intertwined.

You began research on the history of the emotions over a decade ago, around 2003, and have been active in drawing scholarly attention to the history of emotions ever since. What prompted your original interest in this field?

A couple of things came together. I was living in Germany, and this was an area where German scholars were for once part of the international historiographical avant-garde—with Begriffsgeschichte and Alltagsgeschichte being the other two major conceptual contributions to a discipline conceptually dominated since 1945 by Anglo-American, French, Italian (microhistory), Indian (postcolonial, subaltern), and a few more debates. I was struggling with all kinds of estrangement and adaptation effects (after 11 years outside Germany), and it seemed attractive to join a conversation that extended beyond the subdisciplinary confines of Osteuropäische Geschichte. Second, I started working on war, and fear plainly stood out. Third, I was at a phase in my life (call it a crisis, perhaps a midlife crisis) where few things titillated me and I was drawn to the visceral, as sick as this may sound. (Today I am horrified when reading the soldier first-person accounts, one of the reasons why I keep escaping from my book project.) Connected with that was the promise of the history of emotions: a less discursive gateway to the past, a more “real” access. That promise, by the way, is also the promise of the history of the senses. The promise is elusive, I have come to believe—not in the sense that we will not attain it but in the sense that the dichotomy that underpins it is falsely constructed: discourse/language/mediation vs. raw experience, emotional expression vs. emotional experience, the former exterior to the body, the latter situated within the body (deep inside she felt …). I believe for the history of emotions to be not another fad, yet another “turn,” it must not just deliver empirically, show how it is actually “applied,” but also hammer home the futility of this dichotomy and develop holistic conceptual language that leaves it behind. More generally speaking, there seems to be too much to do, especially in our “post-truth” age of “felt” and “alternative facts.” There is a real need for serious analysis of the emotional dimension of current politics.

When I entered the history of emotions field, it fascinated me that you could come up with a concept and see it cited almost instantly. That was very different from established, saturated fields. I think this partly explains why nobody ever found it strange that a historian of Russia wrote a general book on the new history of emotions. Incidentally, it would be worth considering in greater depth in Kritika the historians who have Russianist backgrounds and came to lead non-Russian fields: David Christian’s Big History comes to mind.[11]

In your The History of Emotions you offer a history of the history of the emotions, a critique of current historical literature on emotions, and a history of scientific writing on emotions. One of your criticisms of recent historical investigations of emotions is of the way in which historians use and have used science, particularly neuroscience. You note that some historians, like Dror Wahrman, readily admit to lacking a background that would allow them to draw on this literature responsibly: “ ‘A more serious obstacle is the fact that historians lack the critical tools for the evaluation of biological and medical discoveries. I myself, for example, am unable to tell whether what I have written here about the findings of neuro-physiological research is correct, controversial or total nonsense.’” [12] Is it appropriate for historians to make use of findings in neuroscience? Where do the limits of productive interdisciplinarity lie?

I believe there is indeed potential for productive cross-pollination, but the danger is—or was, the neurohype seems past its peak—that humanities scholars would latch on to scientific findings that turn out to be false. And by “false” I mean false. Saying that scientific findings are also culturally constructed does not help, because humanities scholars are looking for universal, robust truths from the sciences in the first place, and if the scientific findings turn out to be wrong, entire edifices built on them crumble. So it will take becoming truly conversant with science—experimental designs; sample sizes; internal, external, and ecological validity, and so on (meta-analyses are always the best place to start; a meta-analysis is a survey of more specialized studies). It took me about three years to gain some literacy with regard to major hypotheses in affective neuroscience: mirror neurons, Joseph LeDoux’s two roads to fear, Antonio Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis, all three of which are now considered pretty much defunct. By the way, hypotheses are just that, nothing more and nothing less (they are tested over and over, and if they do not furnish the same results under the same experimental conditions, they are wrong, something that happens all the time in the sciences and over which scientists lose no sleep). Now it can be done; it is not quantum physics—in fact, my respect for various disciplines has changed, with the history of science and literary scholarship (including its time-honored “philological” methods, its attention to metaphor, narrative, etc.) moving to the top. I needed three years to become conversant with only a few hypotheses; it is difficult to really follow just these and humanly impossible to follow all of “experimental psychology” (including affective neuroscience) on emotions. Also, I had a privileged position to get into the neurosciences, working at Ute Frevert’s Max Planck Center for the History of Emotions alongside experimental psychologists, including a developmental psychologist (developmental psychologists are interested in individuals across the lifespan; they do not universalize college student test subjects to make statements about infants and octogenarians alike) who started using neuroscience methods and got an fMRI scanner while I was there. There was a lot of productive friction between experimental psychologists and historians. For those fellow Russianists who have neither these conditions nor the time, I recommend thinking twice before getting into the neurosciences. Actually, my advice is to steer clear for the time being. I know there’s a double bind here: I say this having done it, having proven that it is possible, only to then tell other historians to stay out of neuroscience.

You have organized and participated in conferences and panels about the history of the emotions in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, India, and Russia. In your experience, how do cultural contexts influence the manner in which historians approach emotions as a category of analysis?

For example, it would be interesting to hear how the 2012 American Historical Review (AHR) conversation compared with the conversations you participated in during the 2008 conference on “Emotions in Russian History and Culture” in Moscow, the debates you took part in at the Max Planck Center for the History of Emotions in Berlin, or the 2008 Workshop at Princeton, “Fear: Multidisciplinary Perspectives.” Could the conversations that took place in Berlin have occurred at Princeton? Why or why not?

An interesting question. My initial impulse was to downplay cultural specificity, given how transnational and small the field is and given how hybridic or diasporic many of us are these days, but on second thought there is a “there” there. In Germany, for instance, it quickly became apparent that the history of emotions, especially when it talks about social aggregates and collective feelings, opens a backdoor for “mentality” and ultimately “national character.” At public events, my colleagues and I noticed that the history of emotions unintentionally attracted some very strange bedfellows, including ultraconservative psychologists who argue for the epigenetic, transgenerational transmission of war trauma (e.g., the bombing of Dresden) from those Germans who lived through the war to their children and grandchildren: my generation’s depression, inertia, and unwillingness to found start-ups and to produce enough children for the nation’s demographic survival—in short, our German angst—are purportedly all due to that inherited trauma.[13]

In Russia, the history of emotions seems to attract people interested in “subjective” (as opposed to “objective,” “scientific”) history: for our 2008 Moscow conference we got an abstract from an astrologer in Kamchatka. In India, the history of emotions is seen by many as a fruitful new approach to better understand communal violence among Hindus, Muslims, and others.[14] The United States is the only country I know where a medievalist historian would mobilize experimental emotions psychology and the neurosciences, arguing: “In an age when biblical literalism is on the rise, when presidents doubt the truth of evolution, when the teaching of evolutionary biology in the United States is being dumbed down and school boards talk seriously about creation science and intelligent design, it is all the more important for historians to support their colleagues in the biological sciences.”[15] Unthinkable in secular Europe!


[1]  Jan Plamper, The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), published in Russian as Ian Plamper, Alkhimiia vlasti: Kul´t Stalina v izobrazitel´nom iskusstve, trans. Nikolai Edel´man (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2010), and in Polish as Jan Plamper, Kult Stalina: Studium alchemii władzy, trans. Piotr Chojnacki (Warsaw: Świat Książki, 2014).

[2]  Jan Plamper, ed., “Emotional Turn? Feelings in Russian History and Culture,” special issue of Slavic Review 68, 2 (2009); Plamper, Shamma Shakhadat [Schamma Schahadat], and Mark Eli [Marc Elie], eds., Rossiiskaia imperiia chuvstv: Podkhody k kul´turnoi istorii emotsii (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2010); Plamper and Benjamin Lazier, eds., Fear: Across the Disciplines (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012).

[3]  “The History of Emotions: Interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Stearns,” History and Theory 49, 2 (2010): 237–65; Jan Plamper, participant, “AHR Conversation: The Historical Study of Emotions,” American Historical Review 117, 5 (2012): 1487–1531.

[4]  Jan Plamper, “Emotional Turn? Feelings in Russian History and Culture,” Slavic Review 68, 2 (2009): 232–33; Mark D. Steinberg, Proletarian Imagination: Self, Modernity, and the Sacred in Russia, 1910–1925 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002); Catriona Kelly, Refining Russia: Advice Literature, Polite Culture, and Gender from Catherine to Yeltsin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Sheila Fitzpatrick, “Happiness and Toska: An Essay in the History of Emotions in Pre-War Soviet Russia,” Austrialian Journal of Politics and History 50, 3 (2004): 357–71; Árpád von Klimó and Malte Rolf, “Rausch und Diktatur,” Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft, no. 10 (2003): 877–95; Glennys Young, “Emotions, Contentious Politics, and Empire: Some Thoughts about the Soviet Case,” Ab Imperio, no. 2 (2007): 113–51; Alexander Martin, “Sewage and the City: Filth, Smell, and Representations of Urban Life in Moscow, 1770–1880,” Russian Review 67, 2 (2008): 243–74. Suny’s first printed contribution on the history of emotions appeared only in 2010 as Ronal´d Grigor Suni [Ronald Grigor Suny], “Affektivnye soobshchestva: Struktura gosudarstva i natsii v Rossiiskoi imperii,” in Rossiiskaia imperiia chuvstv, 78–114. An earlier piece by Suny, “Why We Hate You: The Passions of National Identity and Ethnic Violence,” was published in the spring of 2004 in the Berkeley Program in Eurasian and East European Studies BPS Working Paper Series. The 2010 article was followed by Suny, “Thinking about Feelings: Affective Dispositions and Emotional Ties,” in Interpreting Emotions in Russia and Eastern Europe, ed. Mark D. Steinberg and Valeria Sobol (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011), 116–23.

[5]  See, e.g., Andrei Zorin, Poiavlenie geroia: Iz istorii russkoi emotsional´noi kul´tury kontsa XVIII–nachala XIX veka (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2016).

[6]  Jan Plamper, Geschichte und Gefühl: Grundlagen der Emotionsgeschichte (Munich: Siedler, 2012), published in English as Plamper, The History of Emotions: An Introduction, trans. Keith Tribe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[7]  For examples, see Brian Massumi, ed., A Shock to Thought: Expression after Deleuze and Guattari (London: Routledge, 2002); Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002); William E. Connolly, A World of Becoming (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); John Protevi, Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009); Steven Shaviro, Post-Cinematic Affect (Winchester: Zero Books, 2009). But see also Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin Books, 2005); Hardt, “Affective Labor,” Boundary 26, 2 (1999): 89–100; and Hardt, “Foreword: What Affects Are Good For,” in The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, ed. Patricia Ticineto Clough and Jean Halley (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), ix–xiii. My thinking has been shaped by Ruth Leys’s devastating critique of affect theory. See Ruth Leys, “The Turn to Affect: A Critique,” Critical Inquiry 37, 3 (2011): 434–72, and the ensuing discussion: Connolly, “Critical Response I: The Complexity of Intention,” Critical Inquiry 37, 4 (2011): 791–98; Leys, “Critical Response II: Affect and Intention. A Reply to William E. Connolly,” Critical Inquiry 37, 4 (2011): 799–805; and Leys, The Ascent of Affect: Genealogy and Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

[8]  Slovar´ russkogo iazyka XVIII veka (Leningrad: Nauka, 1984), 118; Bol´shaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia, 3rd ed. (Moscow: Sovetskaia entsiklopediia, 1976), 24, pt. 1, 556.

[9]  Carla Hesse, “The New Empiricism,” Cultural and Social History 1, 2 (2004): 202.

[10] See William M. Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 128. For philosophical attacks on the dichotomy, see, e.g., Robert Pippin’s reading of Hegel and Cavell (http://nonsite.org/issues/issue-5-agency-and-experience).

[11] See, e.g., David Christian and William H. McNeill, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

[12] Plamper, History of Emotions, 276, quoting Dror Wahrmann, “Where Culture and Biology Meet,” review of Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Human Brain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), Haaretz, 24 April 2008. Even more forcefully stated reservations about drawing on findings in the natural sciences can be found in Rossiiskaia imperiia chuvstv, 31–36; and “AHR Conversation: The Historical Study of Emotions,” 1510–12.

[13] See, e.g., Gabriele Baring, Die geheimen Ängste der Deutschen (Munich: Scorpio, 2011). For a critique, see Jan Plamper, “Die Deutschen als Opfer,” Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 8 June 2015, 15; and, less critically, Burkhard Bilger, “Where Germans Make Peace with Their Dead,” New Yorker, 12 September 2016 (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/09/12/familienaufstellung-germanys-group-therapy). It is true, however, that the processes that took place between mind-bodies at, say, a Nazi Party rally remain opaque. When it comes to emotions of groups of people in a single space with face-to-face contact, our analytical instruments do not go beyond metaphors of “contagion” (see, e.g., Max Scheler, The Nature of Sympathy, trans. Peter Heath [New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2008], 14–17). This is one of several exciting areas where serious theorizing is needed.

[14] For a pioneering study, see Lisa Mitchell, Language, Emotion, and Politics in South India: The Making of a Mother Tongue (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009).

[15] Smail, On Deep History and the Brain, 11.

 

Anthony Seldon: Universities should promote the flourishing of students and staff

This week I took the train out to Milton Keynes, then a taxi through the golden fields of Buckinghamshire to the University of Buckingham, where Sir Anthony Seldon recently became vice-chancellor. He was previously headmaster of Wellington School, where he became prominent for his advocacy of happiness classes. Now, he has brought that vision to higher education, outlining his plan to make Buckingham ‘Europe’s first positive university’.

What does that mean? Well, you can listen to our conversation through this podcast. In brief, it’s a holistic vision that includes various measures, from mentoring to mindfulness. The most eye-catching is the introduction of classes in Positive Psychology for all students and staff.

I met the head of psychology, Dr Alan Martin, who has been given this task by Anthony. Imagine – you’re the head of faculty in the UK’s smallest university, your speciality is children’s understanding of science, when a new vice-chancellor arrives and calls you in for a meeting. ‘I’d like to introduce classes in Positive Psychology. For everyone’. ‘All psychology students?’ ‘No, everyone.’

In that first meeting with Alan, Anthony called up Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology, and booked him in as a consultant. Suddenly, Alan is thrust into the fabulously-funded world of Positive Psychology,  the cultish conferences at Penn, the sermons from Seligman, the endless well-being questionnaires. And he is the European apostle – go forth, and make Buckingham flourish. It’s the stuff of David Lodge novels.

His task is made slightly easier by the fact Buckingham only has 2500 undergraduates, and it already has the highest scores for student satisfaction in the UK, thanks to its low student-to-teacher ratio and tutorial system. But it’s still quite a shift in culture for the university – it was founded in the 1970s by two neoliberal wonks from the Thatcherite Institute of Economic Affairs, and opened by the Iron Lady herself, as a way to challenge state control of universities. The previous vice-chancellor was a grumpy libertarian who didn’t believe in staff training. 

Seldon, by contrast, has a much more paternalist vision of the university. The part of our conversation that most struck me  – have a listen yourself on the podcast – is where Anthony says: ‘Universities are helping people to be free. You can’t assume that people suddenly morph from dependent teenagers to autonomous adults over the summer holidays.’  He adds:

This is about liberating but not infantilizing people. Liberty is not license. If you let 18-year-olds without any guidance have lots of money and access to whatever they want to do, without guidance, then it would be a recipe for disaster in some people’s cases. We’re here to try and help people learn how to be free. Many adults aren’t free. I’ve never met an alcoholic who’s free, I’ve never met a sex addict who’s free. I’m sure they were all given huge license to indulge themselves, but life is not about indulgence, indulgence is enslavement.

Cardinal Newman

He quotes Jean-Jacques Rousseau, about the state helping people to be free (or forcing them, rather – Seldon says ‘ there’s a place for coercion in education’) but the educator he really reminds me of is Cardinal John Henry Newman, the 19th-century Catholic thinker and rector of the Catholic University in Dublin. He wrote The Idea of a University, which is the classic defence of the liberal arts model of education, ie the idea that universities shouldn’t just teach vocations but also the intellectual, social and spiritual virtues.

Newman, like Seldon, saw universities as pastors shepherding students to autonomous adulthood. Newman thought that ‘a Tutor was not a mere academical Policeman, or Constable, but a moral and religious guardian of the youths committed to him’. He also thought peer-to-peer education was key – students really mould each other through what Newman called the ‘genius loci’, or ‘spirit-of-the-place’ (through sports, clubs, arts groups, and so on). 

Paul Shrimpton, author of a recent book on Newman’s vision for higher education, writes: ‘Throughout his life Newman was preoccupied with the ‘problem’ of human freedom, and in particular how it played out in a person’s formative years. In all his educational ventures he grappled with how best to negotiate that delicate and gradual process of launching the young person into the world, how to pitch demands and expectations with just that right mixture of freedom and restraint.’

Seldon clearly thinks universities are more in loco parentis than most British universities currently are – his vision is closer to the American liberal arts model, where of course 18-year-olds are still legally minors. I wonder how this vision will go down in the UK. As we emerged from dinner, Anthony greeted three Buckingham students wandering down the village street, pints in hand. ‘Good evening, how are you!’ he beamed. The students seemed startled by running into their new vice-chancellor. ‘We were just discussing student drinking!’ he said. ‘We…er….just came second in the pub quiz’, one of the students responded, while the other two lurked in the background.

Maybe some will find his vision creepy. I’m sure many sullen British academics will say his project is really turning out cheerleaders for neo-liberalism, and that students should actually be taught to be angry at the injustices of global capitalism.  But it must be possible to have an education that both wakes us up to the sometimes harsh reality of life on this planet and also gives us the confidence, equanimity and inner strength to believe we can improve that reality.  Is this not what, say, Martha Nussbaum advocates in her defence of the liberal arts? 

Personally, I wish I’d had a tutor like Anthony at university. He’s an unusual chap, no mistake. On the one hand, a political operator, well-connected, not shy of publicity, who’s written biographies of four prime ministers. On the other hand, a deeply spiritual person who talks of transcending the ego, with whom one can discuss anything from yoga to Gurdjieff.

He greeted me at his cottage and then went off to meditate, and he went off to meditate again after my talk. In between, we sat in his living room with assorted students and staff, for what he called a ‘fireside chat’. ‘Who’s watching Love Island?’ he asked the startled cohorts, who seemed unsure whether to admit such a vice. He has a habit of firing questions at people. ‘What’s your greatest fear?’ he asked me at dinner. ‘When was the last time you took drugs?’ he asked at the fireside chat. ‘About a month ago”, I said. ‘A microdose of psilocybin for psycho-therapeutic purposes.’ Well, Anthony, you did ask!

If you want to hear highlights of our conversation, click here

What UK universities can learn from the US about promoting well-being

A diagram from Donald Harward on the purposes of higher education

 

I’ve recently begun a new research focus, looking at well-being in higher education. British universities have started to focus on this issue a lot more, spurred by worrying headlines about an ‘epidemic of mental illness on campus’. But, judging by the events I’ve attended so far, universities don’t yet get the complexity of this issue, and see it simply in terms of increasing funding for counselling.

Last week, I came across a collection of essays – Well-Being and Higher Education: A Strategy for Change and the Realization of Education’s Greater Purposes – by a group of American academics. It suggests to me that the US is way beyond the UK in its thinking on this topic.

First, the authors take well-being seriously as a core purpose of higher education, rather than something one farms out to counselling services at the campus periphery. Secondly, they understand the importance of knowing the history of higher education as you try to re-frame its purpose. Third, they recognize the philosophical complexity of defining and measuring well-being. And fourth, they’re prepared to try out innovative interventions. British universities are way behind on all four of these issues.

  1. Taking well-being seriously as a core purpose of higher education

The collection begins with an essay by the editor, Donald Harward, a philosopher who was president of Bates College and now heads up an institute called Bringing Theory to Practice. He called for American higher education to ‘recognize well-being as an inextricable, but not sole, dimension of higher education’s greater purpose’. 

Other American universities have embraced well-being as part of their mission. In 2013, Georgetown University President John DeGioia described the university’s responsibility to our students as the following: “Our explicit way of supporting young people engaged in the most important work in which they can be engaged: learning to know themselves and identifying the conditions that will provide for an authentic, flourishing life.”

The same year, George Mason University included well-being as one of twelve strategic goals in its 2015-2025 strategic plan. Nance Lucas and Paul Rogers from George Mason write: ‘Our vision at George Mason University is to become a model “well-being university”—a place at which students, faculty, and staff learn what it means to have lives well-lived and how to respond well to a full range of emotions and challenges.’ Note that George Mason seeks to promote not just student well-being, but the well-being of faculty, staff and the wider community. 

Several other senior American academics put forward well-being, flourishing or virtue as a core purpose of higher education in the collection. In British universities, by contrast, one rarely hears well-being, flourishing, purpose or virtue mentioned as a central purpose of higher education.

2. It’s important to know the history of higher education if you want to re-frame its purpose

The authors in the collection understand the importance of knowing the history of higher education if you want to re-frame its purpose. As Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, writes: ‘Lacking historical perspective, one cannot even be sure whether “new” proposals are truly new or merely nostrums that have been trotted out before with disappointing results.’

It’s important to understand that universities’ focus on well-being is not an entirely new thing, that universities have focused on character and well-being before in their 2500-year history. In fact, the primary aim of universities until the mid-19th century was explicitly to ‘discipline the mind and build the character of students’ (Bok again). But it wasn’t exactly a golden age of education. Bok writes

Until the Civil War, colleges in the United States were linked to religious bodies and resembled finishing schools more closely than institutions of advanced education. Student behavior was closely regulated both inside and outside the classroom, and teachers spent much of their time enforcing regulations and punishing transgressors. Rules of behavior were written in exquisite detail. Columbia’s officials took two full pages merely to describe the proper forms of behavior during compulsory chapel. Yale turned “Sabbath Profanation, active disbelief in the authenticity of the Bible, and extravagant [personal] expenditures” into campus crimes…

Most courses were prescribed in a curriculum that usually included mathematics, logic, English, and classics, with a heavy dose of Latin and Greek. In a typical class, students recited passages from an ancient text under the critical eye of the instructor. Although many colleges offered courses in the sciences, such as astronomy or botany, classes were taught more often by invoking Aristotle and other authorities than by describing experiments and the scientific method. By most accounts, the formal education was sterile.

As a culminating experience, most colleges prior to the Civil War offered a mandatory course for seniors on issues of moral philosophy, often taught by the president himself. Ranging over ethical principles, history, politics, and such issues of the day as immigration, slavery, and freedom of the press, this capstone course served multiple objectives. It set forth precepts of ethical behavior, it prepared students for civic responsibility, and it brought together knowledge from several fields of learning. For many students, it was the high point of an otherwise dull and stultifying education.

The purposes of higher education then gradually changed. In the mid-19th century, American universities followed German counterparts in focusing more on research and PhDs, and launching institutions like Johns Hopkins that were purely research-focused. By the early 20th century, most Protestant universities no longer had enforced chapel or Bible study. But many still tried to form the character of their students through compulsory courses in moral education or Great Books. That idea – of giving students a taste of the best of western culture, giving them an opportunity to form a life-philosophy – has never entirely gone away in American universities, and many still offer courses in Great Books.

However, the popularity of this sort of liberal education has been eroded by three things. Firstly, since the 1960s, the percentage of the population going to college has risen from around 5% to around 40%. University populations have become much more diverse – attracting more women, ethnic minorities and international students. And it’s become more expensive. Students have become more pragmatic in what they want from a college education – Derek Bok notes that ‘since 1970, the percentage of freshmen who rate “being very well off financially” as an “essential” or “very important” goal has risen from 36.2 to 73.6%, while the percentage who attach similar importance to “acquiring a meaningful philosophy of life” has fallen from 79 to 39.6%.’  With a much more diverse student body, a ‘wisdom curriculum’ mainly or entirely constituted of Dead White Men has come to be seen as problematic.

3) Defining and measuring well-being is philosophically complex

Because of growing concerns about the value of mass higher education, university bosses have increasingly looked for ways to define and measure success, to prove they’re succeeding. Bok notes:

The more objective and measurable the goals, the more attractive they will seem to those in charge. As a result, presidents and trustees frequently look to such tangible signs of progress as growth in the size of the endowment, or gains in the average SAT or ACT scores, or new buildings built and new programs begun. Such achievements do not necessarily reflect genuine improvement in teaching, learning and research. But in the absence of better measures, they seem to offer concrete evidence of forward movement and success.

For example, a commission set up by President Obama defined success based on graduation rates and the earnings of graduates. In the UK, notoriously, Gordon Brown’s government tried to measure universities’ success at achieving ‘impact’ on society, while the present government is attempting to measure teaching excellence. None of these measurements are entirely satisfactory, and the Research Excellence Framework introduced by Brown seems to be actively harmful. As Bok notes: ‘Some of the essential aspects of academic institutions – in particular, the quality of the education they provide – are largely intangible and their results are difficult to measure.The result is that much of what is most important to the work of colleges and universities may be neglected, undervalued or laid aside in the pursuit of more visible goals.’

If well-being is embraced as a core purpose by universities, how will it be defined, and can it be measured? This is not a simple question. In the UK, for example, the debate (one might say furore) over campus well-being is driven by frightening but somewhat meaningless statistics, like the NUS survey that showed 78% of students experienced mental health issues. That sounds terrifying, but those issues could be everything from a panic attack to a hangover to a full-blown psychotic episode.

The authors of Well-Being in Higher Education at least seem to understand this is not a simple issue. In fact, several different definitions of well-being are put forward – hedonic well-being (ie feeling good); eudaimonic well-being (defined by Carol Ryff as ‘purpose in life, environment mastery, positive relationships, autonomy, personal growth and self-acceptance); thriving (defined as ‘engaged learning, social connectedness, diverse citizenship and positive perspective’.

There is a recognition that well-being – if defined in an Aristotelian or eudaimonic sense – will probably involve teaching character virtues. Derek Bok suggests developing character is one of the central roles of a university. Barry Schwartz suggests universities should teach the ‘intellectual virtues’: love of truth, honesty, fair-mindedness, humility, perseverance, courage, good listening, perspective taking, empathy, and above all, wisdom, which Schwartz suggests is the ‘master-virtue’. (By the by, the Oxford philosopher Nigel Biggar has also suggested that a central purpose of universities is to teach intellectual and social virtues). Alexander Astin notes that university seems to improve students’ spirituality, and in particular their capacity for the virtue of equanimity – a key virtue in Buddhism and Stoicism. He notes: 

As part a recent national study of college students’ spiritual development, we devised measures of five spiritual qualities, one of which seems especially pertinent to well-being. We call it equanimity. Students with high equanimity scores say they are able to and meaning in times of hardship, feel at peace, see each day as a gift, and feel good about the direction of their lives. Equanimity actually shows positive growth during the college years. Equanimity is most likely to show positive growth when students participate in charitable activities (service learning, donating money to charity, helping friends with personal problems) or when they engage in contemplative practices (meditation, prayer, reflective writing, reading sacred texts). 

Clearly, there are multiple ways universities can define and measure well-being: happiness, freedom from anxiety, purpose in life, equanimity, belonging, connectedness, social conscience and so on. Not all of these are measurable, and those that are might not always be a good guide to success: a university might have a high sense of student belonging because it does not have a very diverse student body. It may be worth measuring multiple factors – as the Healthy Minds survey does – and then using them as helpful tools rather than rigid benchmarks.

4) Innovative interventions 

Finally, the authors in the collection suggest several innovative ways to enhance well-being in universities. In the UK, universities tend to see well-being just as a mental health issue, to be approached through counselling, peer-to-peer training or technology. That’s such a narrow and instrumental way to view it. American universities, perhaps because of their history of liberal arts education, have a much broader and more intellectually-interesting way of approaching it. Several universities offer courses in Positive Psychology, for example, or contemplative studies, or Great Books courses, or courses in moral philosophy or ‘the art of living’ – such general curriculum courses barely exist in UK universities.

Other interventions discussed in the book include:

Engelhard courses at Georgetown University: as part of its commitment to well-being, the university seeks to include modules related to well-being in several different curricula, from biology to history. Riley and Elmendorf write: ‘In foundations of biology, students are required to write a research paper in which students explore the genetic and environmental bases of a mental families and friends directly, so in our predominantly 18–19 year-old population, we often see papers on addiction, depression, anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity literature and leverage their nascent knowledge of foundational molecular, genetic, and during face-to-face time in the course and in an online environment. Collectively, the Engelhard project has reached 15,126 students in 358 courses over the ten-year period of 2005 to 2015. More than one-third of our first year students take Engelhard courses

Well-being courses involving the sciences and humanities: James Pawelski, a professor in Positive Psychology at Penn University, notes that well-being can be explored and promoted using both the social sciences and the humanities. He notes, for example, that CBT techniques could be taught with reference to Stoic philosophy (something I’ve taught for the last few years), and that flourishing could be taught through literary studies (he co-authored a book on the ‘eudaimonic turn’ in literary studies). Courses in contemplation can also combine both the sciences (the science of mindfulness) with the humanities (the culture and ethics of Buddhism, for example)

Contemplative studies: Mark Edmundson suggests higher education should promote the virtues of ‘courage, contemplation and compassion’, through such contemplative practices as reflective writing, deep reading, quietness, meditation and poetry.

Volunteering and social work: the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) has a programme called LEAP, which aims to help students’ development through initiatives like ‘service and community-based learning’. I’ll write in the next few days about a similar project in some UK universities, called ‘Open Minds’, where medical and psychology students deliver mental health education in local schools.

Focus on mentoring and relationships: the key finding of a recent study, How College Works by Daniel Chambliss and Christopher Takacs, is that relationships matter more to student thriving than curricula:

At a liberal arts college in New York, the authors followed a cluster of nearly one hundred students over a span of eight years. The curricular and technological innovations beloved by administrators mattered much less than the professors and peers whom students met, especially early on. At every turning point in students’ undergraduate lives, it was the people, not the programs, that proved critical. Great teachers were more important than the topics studied, and even a small number of good friendships—two or three—made a significant difference academically as well as socially.

Barry Schwartz also thinks the intellectual virtues are best passed on to students through relationships, particularly through emulation and modelling: ‘We are always modeling. And the students are always watching. We need to do it better. A good start would be to do it deliberately and not by accident.’

There is so much more one could consider if well-being is taken seriously by universities: the importance of sports, of the aesthetics of a campus, of having places of beauty and quiet to enhance reflection, of marking development with rites of passage. Not to mention the fierce debates over feelings of belonging and safety for women, ethnic minorities, trans students, or white working-class male students (a minority particularly badly-served by British universities).

But this collection shows, encouragingly, that American universities are taking well-being seriously, understanding the historical and philosophical complexity of the issue, and thinking about constructive ways to promote it. We in British universities can learn a lot from their experiences.

On Positive Psychology and the Positive University

Earlier this year, Anthony Seldon, the new vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, announced he was making Buckingham into the UK’s first ‘positive university’. All students will take a course in Positive Psychology. All tutors will be trained in Positive Psychology. The psychology of happiness will be at the centre of the university, rather like the philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas was (and sometimes still is) at the centre of Catholic universities.

It’s a radical response to what Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb describes as a ‘crisis on campus in respect to mental health‘. Student demand for counselling has risen 50% in the last five years ; student drop-out figures are rising steeply. Post-graduates, academics and staff also report feeling stressed.

Universities increasingly agree that student well-being is important and institutions should help support it. But how exactly? There is no clear consensus, partly because – unlike many American universities – British universities don’t yet measure student well-being so can’t compare the efficacy of different approaches.

Some institutions are focusing on improving funding for student counselling, but that’s dealing with the issue once it’s already become a serious problem. Other solutions include training students in peer support, developing online well-being programmes, and training personal tutors to cope with students’ issues at the departmental level.

But could well-being become more central to universities’ missions? Could universities provide courses in flourishing, as Seldon suggests?

There are some precedents for Buckingham’s ambitious plan. There’s a university in Mexico, TecMilenia, which incorporated Positive Psychology into its main curriculum in 2013. And there are several American universities that have freshmen courses in Positive Psychology – including Harvard, Berkeley, Rutgers and NYU. These courses are apparently very popular, attracting hundreds of students each year and helping their lecturers to lucrative book and lecturing deals – like Tal Ben Shahar, who runs Harvard’s science of happiness course.

Kathryn Ecclestone has called this intersection of well-being, education and the free market ‘therapeutic entrepreneuralism‘. I guess there is a long tradition of that in America – what’s new is that Positive Psychology connects the world of self-help and life coaching to the world of academic psychology.

The lecturers of the NYU course – Daniel Lerner and Alan Schlechter – recently published their own book based on the course, called U Thrive: How To Succeed At College (and Life). It doesn’t break new ground in Positive Psychology, rather it sticks quite closely to a familiar script.

Positive Psychology was launched by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman in the late 1990s. Seligman was impressed by the success of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), an intervention for depression and anxiety developed by his Penn colleague Aaron Beck, who was inspired in part by Stoic philosophy. Seligman wondered if self-care techniques could be taught not just to the mentally ill, but to everyone, to raise their general level of flourishing.

Positive Psychologists developed a range of brief interventions to improve flourishing. Lerner and Schlechter’s course includes several of them: teach people how their mind-sets and explanatory styles affect their emotions, and how they can become more resilient in their response to adversity; teach people to develop feelings of gratitude and positivity; teach people to identify their core strengths, and the activities that give them ‘flow’ (pleasant absorption) and meaning; teach people to find good role models. And so on.

Each intervention has been tested out and the reader of U Thrive is constantly re-assured with the results (‘the evidence was clear’, ‘the result was surprising’). In some ways, the results aren’t surprising at all – rather, Positive Psychology presents some of the received wisdom of western civilization (be nice, try hard, control your appetites, be optimistic, emulate heroes, find your hobby). But now there is a scientific evidence base for these moral nuggets. Science rather than God can guide us to flourishing.

Positive Psychology sometimes presents itself as something utterly new. It’s not. As the historian George Marsden has chronicled, before the 19th century, Western universities had an explicitly Christian mission, chapel, prayer and Bible study were compulsory, and students’ behaviour was carefully regulated (Seldon’s plans seems a move back to that sort of paternalism, with more university control over students’ drinking, drugs and even social media use. Animal House it ain’t). During the 19th century, Protestant universities like Harvard or Virginia became less explicitly Christian, but still tried to improve students’ moral character through courses in moral philosophy, moral psychology or Great Books. They believed that science and the humanities could teach students character, without any explicit reference to revelation.

The idea that universities exist to support students’ character and wisdom is not new, therefore. It’s only very recently that universities dropped that mission and focused purely on teaching specialist knowledge. They’ve become huge but rather soulless institutions as a result.

Personally, I struggled with emotional problems while studying at Oxford in the late 1990s, and neither my college nor my degree in English Literature was much help. I had to find help for myself, which I finally did through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Greek philosophy. I wrote my first book, Philosophy For Life, to try and pass on the therapeutic wisdom I’d found in Greek philosophy. I’d love colleges to offer basic courses in different wisdom practices as a free add-on to students’ main degrees. That seems normal and healthy to me.

But it’s crucial to find the right balance between the humanities and the social sciences. While Positive Psychology draws heavily on ancient philosophies, it can take a Positivist and scientistic view. Positive Psychologists sometimes insist that science can quantify and measure everything that makes a flourishing life – happiness, meaning, transcendence, even humility (yes, Positive Psychologists think you can measure humility by asking someone how humble they think they are. Donald Trump would score high). Self-reporting questionnaires can’t tell you if you really are living a meaningful, virtuous, transcendent life, only if you think you are, which is not the same thing. To really know if a person is good, psychologists would need to follow them around and spy on them all the time. That’s hard to get approved by the ethics board.

It’s strange that, in a book on how to flourish at university and in life, there’s hardly any mention of ethics. The closest the authors get is when discussing passion and flow – they admit that sometimes passion can be unhealthily and obsessive. But that’s it. No mention of our obligations to others, except in so far as volunteering apparently makes one happier. No mention of how to discriminate ethically between healthy and unhealthy obsessions, between good and bad purposes. On the whole, happiness is taken as the aim of life, although sometimes it’s admitted that achievement or meaning is important too. But how do we weigh-up difficult trade-offs between these goals? We don’t.

We’re told that 75% of undergraduates arrive at university seeking meaning. But what meaning should they find? What is a good meaning? Positive Psychology can’t help us. ‘Whatever gives your life meaning, studies show that finding meaning will have long-term benefits…People who report finding more meaning in life are more likely to enjoy greater well-being, increased resilience, and lower levels of stress and depression.’

There is no mention of God or any model of flourishing beyond this life. How do you quantify closeness to God? Positive Psychology also steers well clear of politics, economics, gender, and race. It’s mentioned in passing that one of the biggest causes of stress for students is finances. Does the university provide enough support for hard-up students? Does society? Who knows. Yes, there’s a lot that individuals can do for their own well-being, but there are also structural barriers to some groups’ well-being.

There’s a lack of self-criticism in the book, a lack of effort to provoke deep and difficult life-questions in students. The student is only encouraged to ask questions within the framework of Positive Psychology – to ask ‘what is my core strength’, but never ‘is it really healthy to spend a lot of time developing my strengths rather than also trying to improve my weaknesses?’

Crucially, the students are never encouraged to question the evidence for Positive Psychology, or to ask ‘are you sure?’ ‘Is that always the case?’ ‘What are the limits and imperfections of this world-view?’

Because the evidence isn’t actually that clear. Meta-analyses of Positive Psychology interventions found some small improvements in positive emotion, but little effect on negative emotion (see here, here, and here). A three-year trial of a Positive Psychology programme in schools in the UK found little long-term impact on well-being or educational performance . I’m not sure the evidence for Positive Psychology is strong enough to warrant it becoming the guiding philosophy of an entire university. And what if a student or staff member disagrees with it? Are they branded a heretic?

There’s a risk of a new Scholasticism, as mindfulness and Positive Psychology become the unquestionable creed of education institutions. A course or institution devoted to wisdom must have room for rebels and heretics – take the example of Brown University’s contemplative studies department. Although it’s a leading institution for the study and practice of meditation, it’s also produced heretical reports showing, for example, that meditation can lead to serious mental health problems. It’s found a good balance between wisdom and free thinking.

To conclude. I think universities should offer voluntary classes in various evidence-based therapeutic interventions, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, mindfulness, and peer-to-peer support. Universities should give students certificates for taking these courses, which count to their degree or at least can go on their CV as an employability skill.

I think these sorts of classes could be offered as part of a course in wisdom or flourishing. But any such course needs to have a place for ethics, philosophy, politics and culture – for the humanities, in other words. Otherwise there is an ethics and meaning gap, and the courses end up scientistic, instrumental, and reductive.

Aristotle wrote that ‘it is the mark of an educated mind to look for precision in each class of things only so far as the nature of the subject admits’. Ethics cannot be turned into a precise science. It requires the development of practical moral judgement – phronesis in Aristotelian terms – and that is cultivated not by presenting endless statistics but by training students in ethical reflection, discussion, and practice. This works best not in lectures to hundreds of students, but in small tutorials, seminars and peer groups.

As a future research project, I suggest we study alternative models of universities where flourishing is seen as the core mission of the institution – from the first Buddhist university of Nalanda in the seventh century BC, through Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, to Catholic colleges like John Henry Newman’s University College Dublin, to alternative contemporary institutions like Naropa University or Schumacher College. The Positive University is not a new idea. Let’s learn from previous experiments.