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.
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.