‘School of Life’ Humanities

by Candace de Russy

As we fortunate enough to be schooled in pre-postmodern/multicultural/politicized studies know well, the study of cultural classics can, of course, teach vital spiritual/philosophical/emotional lessons – lessons about how to love (think Anna Karenina), work (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), approach God (Confessions), and die (Consolation in the Face of Death).

Regrettably, however, most of our campuses, writes Alain de Botton, the founder of the online School of Life, resoutely ignore such teaching, focusing rather on narrow vocational and culturally vapid studies:  

The modern university has achieved unparalleled expertise in imparting factual information about culture, but it remains wholly uninterested in training students to use culture as a repertoire of wisdom—that is, a kind of knowledge concerned with things that are not only true but also inwardly beneficial, providing comfort in the face of life’s infinite challenges.

De Botton proposes that universities adopt this inductive model, thus — revolutionarily — creating courses that identify the “anguished” questions humanity really faces:

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.

Anything but a pitch for yet more faddish claptrap, de Botton states, “This is less a matter of finding new books to teach than of asking the right questions of the ones we already have.”

Without having yet explored in depth the quality of the School for Life curriculum per se, I find its core idea appealing. This may well be a suitable approach to revitalizing interest in our magnificent cultural heritage, which the university has so mindlessly rejected.

This and other generations to come thirst for just such a transmission of the wisdom of the past.