‘Even brick and mortar are vivified, as of old, at the harp of Orpheus. A metropolis becomes no longer a mere collection of houses or of trades. It puts on all the grandeur of its history, and its literature; its towers, and rivers; its art, and jewellery, and foreign wealth; its multitude of human beings […]; and the noise of its many chariots, heard at the same hour, when the wind sets gently towards some quiet suburb.’ – Leigh Hunt, ‘On the Realities of Imagination’, 1820


The University of Life

About a month ago, BBC Future posted a part of a forum on the idea of the University of Life. Philosopher Alain de Botton (who founded the School of Life in Bloomsbury) argued that while schools and universities are good at teaching quantifiable skills such as maths and sciences, they have failed to instruct students on ‘how to live life’ – how to maintain relationships,  accept oneself, deal with anxieties etc. The arts and humanities (or the liberal arts), de Botton, argues, can be used as ‘conduits’ to explore the larger questions in life. Others on the panel were either skeptical or downright critical; someone even called the idea ‘fascist’, since it would be too forceful a curriculum if students had to study only the works that ‘made them good’.

De Botton makes a reasonable defense of his position and argues that the only way to combat the pernicious propaganda that bombards us everyday is to focus on the positive propaganda that we find in the arts. While I have often found de Botton’s arguments unsatisfactory or unconvincing, in this instance, I do see the point. If we view literature from the point of view not of the academic but the writer, then it becomes evident that writers do frequently write with some sort of moral agenda in mind, albeit a subtle one. Tolstoy once compiled a florilegium, or commonplace book, of quotes that could teach the reader about ‘the meaning of life’, vague though that phrase may be:

‘I know that it gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness to communicate with such great thinkers as Socrates, Epictetus, Arnold, Parker. … They tell us about what is most important for humanity, about the meaning of life and about virtue. … I would like to create a book … in which I could tell a person about his life, and about the Good Way of Life.’

For seventeen years, Tolstoy collected fragments for his project, which he later organized into A Wise Thought for Every Day. The quotes affirm, enrich or correspond to Tolstoy’s ideas about wisdom and the value of learning. His own aphoristic passages are interspersed between other quotes; for example: ‘A scholar knows many books; a well-educated person has knowledge and skills; an enlightened person understands the meaning and purpose of his life.’

A liberal arts education does indeed resemble the collecting of quotes, narratives, ideas and images that all amount to some bright message – for the sake of argument, we need to simplify the idea of education. The point is not that we should stop studying historical context, literary techniques, publication processes or the other values of a literary work, but that an overarching sense of purpose would not only help with the selection of works, but would facilitate the entire reading process. Most importantly, I think literature addresses how we can improve human community, how we can live with others. Education should be about training the future citizens of the world – responsible citizens who would not only contribute to their nation but also the global community. Reading – and writing – after all, is about imagining the lives of others, regardless of how dark those lives might be. As Ian McEwan writes, ‘Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion and the beginning of morality.’ Do not texts as diverse as King Lear, Frankenstein and Les Miserables impart something about how to treat others, how to recognize sincerity, fragility and the need for affection?

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