Course logo from the School of Life

The for-profit School of Life in London has caught my attention in features in both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. It’s not a degree-granting institution, but at it’s core, it’s in the same business as Williams College. And it’s a good illustration that there’s a lot that creative thinking about teaching and learning can add to higher education. Here’s founder Alain de Botton, writing in the Journal:

Culture can and should change and save our lives. The problem is the way that culture is taught at our universities, which have a knack for killing its higher possibilities…

On the menu of our school, you won’t find subjects like philosophy, French and history. You’ll find courses in marriage, child-rearing, choosing a career, changing the world and death. Along the way, our students encounter many of the books and ideas that traditional universities serve up, but they seldom get bored—and often come away with a different take on the world.

The School of Life draws upon the same rich catalog of culture treated by its traditional counterparts; we study novels, histories, plays and paintings. But we teach this material with a view to illuminating students’ lives rather than merely prodding them toward academic goals. “Anna Karenina” and “Madame Bovary” are assigned in a course on understanding the tensions of marriage instead of in one focused on narrative trends in 19th-century fiction. Epicurus and Plato appear in the syllabus for a course about wisdom rather than in a survey of Hellenistic philosophy.

Now that’s what a liberal arts education is supposed to be all about.  I’m reaching for my wallet already, even before seeing more notes from their syllabi:

How to Make Love Last. Is love something we’re destined to fall in and out of, or can it be sustained over time? Is sexual desire the essential lubricant… or a pale companion compared with friendship and trust? Readings include: ‘Anna Karenina’ by Leo Tolstoy, ‘The Iris Trilogy’ by John Bayley, ‘The Art of Loving’ by Erich Fromm.

How to Face Death. Is there such a thing as a good death? How might we best mourn the loss of those we care about? Readings include: ‘Consolation in the Face of Death’ by Samuel Johnson, ‘My Last Sigh’ by Luis Bunuel, ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ by Joan Didion.

The School of Life’s genius is in the packaging — and the sales pitch, with its critique of traditional academic subjects. De Botton again:

A university might follow this model by identifying the problematic areas in people’s lives and designing courses that address them head on. There should be classes devoted to, among other things: being alone, reconsidering work, improving relationships with children, reconnecting with nature and facing illness. A university alive to its true responsibilities in a secular age would establish a Department for Relationships, an Institute of Dying and a Center for Self-Knowledge. This is less a matter of finding new books to teach than of asking the right questions of the ones we already have.

Our most celebrated intellectual institutions rarely consent to ask, let alone to answer, the most serious questions of the soul. Oprah Winfrey may not provide the deepest possible analysis of the human condition, but her questions are often more probing and meaningful than those posed by Ivy League professors in the humanities.

It’s probably true that, even at liberal arts institutions, there are missed opportunities to use the materials to “ask . . . the most serious questions of the soul.” But when I was a student, those questions still were asked frequently at Williams College – both in and out of the classroom, and in and out of the humanities. And the same was true, to a lesser extent, at schools like Amherst or the liberal arts colleges inside major public universities. The flawed premise behind de Botton’s marketing is that it’s the title of the class that determines what you learn about, not the content of the course itself.

(It appears de Botton started out applying his critique to British universities. The Times piece notes “Mr. de Botton sees such instruction as responding to a specifically English problem. On the one hand, he said, there is the exclusionary elitism of ancient higher education. On the other, for English people, ‘sitting down and talking with strangers about emotional things is taboo…’)

Still, the appealing elements of the School of Life mission — and their many sold-out classes; see their upcoming schedule here suggest to me that they’ve hit on a facet of the Williams education that the College underplays in its recruiting. Sure, it’s important that Williams College is the best place to go if you want to get into a top graduate school, or to learn one-on-one in a tutorial or to hike, mountain-bike, snowshoe, and run to the top of Mt. Greylock in a single semester or win a Director’s Cup. Whether you’re a high school student with trepidation submerged beneath your excitement in going off to college or a parent worried about how your child is going to fare on her own in a cruel world, the idea that Williams is preparing students “to face death,” “find a job they love,” “make love last,” and “have better conversations” is reassuring. It’s an explanation of what this mysterious “liberal arts education” is all about — and an illustration of what makes it different than being lectured at by some ninth-year PhD student at a place like Yale.

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