The university system has a vice-hold grip on what we consider ‘true’. However, academia has for a long time only served a materialistic picture of the universe, and so ‘truth’ really just means ‘scientific materialism’. This state of play is kept going in universities by a culture of group-think, dogma and disenchantment – where student well-being is left by the waste side, writes Jules Evans.
‘Esalen existed in the liminal space between academia and the counterculture.’
So reads a line in Jeffrey Kripal’s history of Esalen, where he’s the director of the Centre for Research. It made me think of my own relationship to academia.
Esalen is a place in Big Sur, California, set up in 1962, which offers week and weekend-long courses, mainly in personal growth. It is like an alternative college, exploring topics that academia was scared to touch (ecstatic experiences, psychedelics, alternative medicine etc), but also exploring new ways of knowing, beyond the lecture format, like the encounter session, the trip. Why did it require a non-academic college to explore these ideas?
Academia has a kind of vice-hold on western culture, and on what is designated ‘truth’. It has one dominant mind-set — rational-intellectual and resolutely secular; one main method of learning — the lecture; and one main method of evaluation — the exam. Its culture was defined by the sociologist Max Weber, in his very influential lecture of 1917, ‘Science as a Vocation’.
Weber insisted that academia must be committed to the search for objective rational truth. It must have no other values than that. It must resist the temptation to serve other gods, such as happiness or wisdom. The lecture room must not become a church pulpit, he insisted.
This defence of the objectivity of academia sounds heroic but was in fact profoundly disingenuous. Academic culture is not a ‘view from nowhere’. Weber was deeply committed to one view, one ideology — secular naturalism — and he envisaged academics as foot-soldiers for the advance of this ideology. Academia is, for him, a machine for disenchantment. That dogma academics are very much encouraged and expected to preach. In fact, it is so all-encompassing it is simply taken for granted.
Academia has a kind of vice-hold on western culture, and on what is designated ‘truth'.
Yes, his attitude to disenchantment is ambivalent. Yes, he thinks the modern godless condition is somewhat tragic. But we must face it like adults. To believe in anything except secular materialism is to collapse into childish superstition, he tells us sternly.
So what Weber really means by ‘serving objective truth’ is ‘serving secular materialism’. If you do not commit to that ideology, you are an enemy of academia, a ghost in the machine, a throwback, an evolutionary vestige. You are a male nipple.
Also, academia has long had a tendency to group-think. This is a consequence of the peer-review system, maybe, and the hierarchical nature of PhD supervision. It is very difficult to think outside established lines of thinking. You get bitten, like a husky that has strayed out of the tracks. That’s why ‘paradigm shifts’ (I hate that phrase) often start outside of academia. When there was a shift from the Aristotelian to the materialist worldview in the 17th century, for example, it was pioneered by thinkers outside of academia, like Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes and Thomas Hobbes.
Since the 1950s, there has been a slow shift against the rationalist-materialist ideology, to try and re-integrate forbidden ways of knowing — dreams, visions, trance states, mystical, psychedelic and paranormal experiences, and somatic knowledge (knowing with the body).
This has mainly but not entirely occurred outside academia, led by semi-academic figures like Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts and Gerald Heard — the so-called ‘mystical expats’ who helped to inspire Esalen. These figures had one foot in academia, or a toe at least.
Simon Nelson, Maurice Fraser, and Leonidas Donskis envisage a revolution in education.
The mystical expats were the opposite of the Weberian scientist. They rebelled against the idea it was impossible or wrong to teach wisdom and flourishing and even mystical truth. They also critiqued the hegemony of secular materialism and pointed out all the phenomena that this theory fails to account for (like, say, consciousness).
I also believe that it’s possible to explore topics like meaning, happiness and even mystical truth within the confines of academia. However, it’s not easy. I agree with Weber that academics should not be preachers or gurus.
What I try to do is explore wisdom traditions, but in a critical, pluralist, historical way. I explore ecstatic experiences, even my own, but never insist on one interpretation of them.
Still, I believe higher education can teach meaning, happiness, wisdom, virtue, even mystical truth. But it takes a certain balance to do it.
Those topics and experiences seem quite far from the academic mainstream. I remember meeting a psychologist at my university, and telling him I’d just been trying ayahuasca in the Peruvian jungle. ‘You’ve been taking drugs?’ he asked. ‘Well, you know, exploring the psychology of transcendence’, I replied. He’d never heard of the word!
It is hard enough to get academics to talk about well-being and happiness, never mind transcendence. I tried for 8 years to get my university to develop a more coherent well-being strategy. I knew that students loved talks and courses on well-being (as long as they were done intelligently and critically), and that it made sense to link together well-being research with well-being courses and well-being / therapy services — so that students can learn how to take care of their minds and the different sorts of flourishing we can seek in life.
This year has exposed rather brutally that, if it comes to choosing between the well-being of students or the financial interests of the university, finances come first.
Many of my academic colleagues gave their time and support to this collective effort to upgrade our well-being strategy. But for some reason senior management never got behind it. This is pretty standard, I think. As the great Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, points out, well-being initiatives are taken up by some enthusiastic individuals at universities, but they then leave, and universities don’t deem it important enough to put anything systemic in place.
I do think things will change eventually, and universities will start taking the well-being of students more seriously.
But this year has exposed rather brutally that, if it comes to choosing between the well-being of students or the financial interests of the university, finances come first. I’m not talking about my university here, but I was shocked by how many universities lured students to sign up with them this year with promises of ‘blended learning’, only to shut them into their halls like prisoners, feed them stale sandwiches, and deliver all of their courses online.
That makes all the promises around ‘student well-being’ sound pretty hollow.
The massive industrial modern university is like a Soviet supermarket. Students have to pay high market rates, but they are barely offered any variety in terms of the types of courses they can take. It’s almost entirely three-year full-time courses in one discipline. Tattered Soviet banners hang above the shelves, with slogans like ‘Inclusion’, ‘Skills’, ‘Justice’, ‘Well-Being’ and ‘Diversity’. But there is not much diversity on offer in the politics, nor in the metaphysics. It’s a weirdly monocultural industry.
But it’s changing. The boundaries of which it is acceptable to study are slowly broadening. In the last decade, academia has started to study things like meditation and psychedelics much more. UK academia is even a leader in psychedelic research. Fancy that!
I’ve noticed a tendency in myself to criticize the institutions and communities to which I belong but, escaping this for a moment, let me say thank you to all my academic colleagues for their friendship and support and our collective endeavours over the last eight years. I’ve met some truly fascinating people, and I’ve learnt a little bit of the critical rigour in which you excel.
This is a shorter version of an article previously published here.