Guest Post from Sam Seidenberg:
Alain de Botton is a Swiss writer, entrepreneur, and longtime proponent of the relevance and practical benefits of philosophy. He is the author of several bestsellers, including How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Consolations of Philosophy, Status Anxiety, and The Architecture of Happiness. In his latest work, Religion for Atheists, de Botton argues that while the mystical aspects of religion may be false, religions still have useful features that secular society would benefit from appropriating.
Why, you ask, is this book being featured on a blog about brains and studying? Well, here at Brainscape, we’re also very interested in the future of education, and de Botton renders an intriguing portrayal of a University of the future in the Education chapter of Religion for Atheists.
De Botton’s core premise in this chapter is that religions have done a much better job than secular society in cultivating inspiration in students. The reason, he claims, is that religions always make direct connections between the abstract concepts they teach and the lives of their followers. Secular institutions, on the other hand, may have students read profound texts that are superior to those used by religions, but these institutions are often too squeamish to use such materials to help students ask and answer questions that are of value to the human spirit.
De Botton’s solution to this problem relies less on new technology and more on novel methods of subject organization. He argues that the traditional university departments of History, Literature, and Art should be replaced by departments of Relationships, Death and Dying, and Self-Knowledge. Students would still encounter the exact same materials throughout their studies, they would simply be enhanced by context and relevancy. He illustrates this model with a succinct example:
“Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary would thus be assigned in a course on understanding the tensions of marriage instead of in one focused on the narrative trends in nineteenth-century fiction, just as the recommendations of Epicurus and Seneca would appear in the syllabus for a course about dying rather than in a survey of Hellenistic philosophy.” (page 57)
De Botton’s vision is focused primarily on Humanities at the university level; “Relationships, Death, and Self-Knowledge” might not be the best department alternatives for institutions that work with younger students. However, the concept of structuring curriculum around real-life is one that ought to be incorporated into any discussion of education reform, regardless of subject or student level. Atheist or no, anyone interested in challenging the status quo and deepening the discussion on how to inspire students and develop their intrinsic motivations would benefit from reading Religion for Atheists.