I still haven’t quite recovered from my disappointment with Cambridge. I feel immensely privileged to have gone there. I worked like a slave, graduated with a double starred First in History (Caius 1991) and yet came away after three years with the impression that I had been let down. Whether this was the fault of the University or of my own psyche is an open question.

My problem with the venerable University was that I was asking something very naive, very adolescent and very urgent of it. I wanted help in learning how to live. Live in the broad sense; not master a practical discipline but rather understand myself and the world around me, through the help of a humanistic education.

This is deeply unfashionable. Indeed, it hasn’t been acceptable since Plato’s Academy shut its doors. If you went to any university in the country and said that you had come to study ‘how to live’, you would be politely shown the door – if not the way to an asylum. Universities see it as their job to train you either in a specific career (law, medicine) or to give you a grounding in ‘the humanities’ – but for no identifiable reason, beyond the vague and unexamined notion that three years studying the classics or reading Middlemarch may be a good idea.

The contemporary university is an uncomfortable amalgamation of ambitions once held by a variety of educational institutions. It owes debts to the philosophical schools of Ancient Greece and Rome, to the monasteries of the Middle Ages, to the theological colleges of Paris, Padua and Bologna and to the research laboratories of early modern science. One of the legacies of this heterogenous background is that academics in the humanities have been forced to disguise, both from themselves and their students, why their subjects really matter, for the sake of attracting money and prestige in a world obsessed by the achievements of science and unable to find a sensible way of assessing the value of a novel or a history book.

The chief problem for anyone in a history or an English department today is that science has been too successful. Science can make your car work, fix your liver, send spaceships to Mars and turn sunlight into electricity. In other words, science is to be valued because it gives us control over our fate, whereas in W. H. Auden’s defiant words, “poetry makes nothing happen”. Auden’s stance may be an heroic rallying cry for the freelance poet, but it becomes more alarming as a job description for a young academic who has just completed a doctorate on Biblical references in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s later verse.

The response of humanities departments to their status anxiety has been to mimic their colleagues in physics or astronomy, in a move that has had short-term gains, but is in danger of asphyxiating their subjects in the long run. Academics in the arts have decided that they, too, should be viewed as ‘researchers’ and that their principal value should come from their capacity to discover new things, like chemists might uncover new molecular structures. There are clearly occasions when scholars do make genuine discoveries which can be compared to breakthroughs in science, but it surely represents a distortion of the value of the arts as a whole to make their value entirely dependent on factual, verifiable criteria.

To do so is to behave like a man who has fallen deeply in love and asks his companion if he might act on his emotions by measuring the distance between her elbow and her shoulder blade. In the modern academy, an art historian, on being stirred to tears by the tenderness and serenity he detects in a work by a 14th-century Florentine painter, typically ends up answering his emotions by writing a monograph, as irreproachable as it is bloodless, on the history of paint manufacture in the age of Giotto.

It was in the 16th century that the greatest anti-academic scholar of the West launched his attack on the bias of universities. Michel de Montaigne, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of all the great texts, nevertheless deplored the way in which academics tended to privilege learning over wisdom. “I gladly come back to the theme of the absurdity of our education: its end has not been to make us good and wise, but learned. It has not taught us to seek virtue and to embrace wisdom: it has impressed upon us their derivation and their etymology. We readily inquire, ‘Does he know Greek or Latin?’ ‘Can he write poetry and prose?’ But what matters most is what we put last: ‘Has he become better and wiser?’”

It was because of my time at Cambridge that I started to dream of an ideal new sort of institution which could welcome Montaigne, or indeed Nietzsche, Goethe or Kierkegaard – a University of Life that would give students the tools to master their lives through the study of culture rather than using culture for the sake of passing an exam.

This ideal University of Life would draw on traditional areas of knowledge (history, art, literature) but would angle its material towards active concerns (how to choose a career, conduct a relationship, sack someone and get ready to die). The university would never take the importance of culture for granted. It would be calculatedly vulgar. Rather than leaving it hanging why one was reading Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, an ideal course covering 19th-century literature would ask plainly “What is it that adultery ruins in a marriage?” Students would end up knowing much the same material as their colleagues in other institutions, but they would have learnt it under a very different set of headings.

On the menu of my ideal university, you wouldn’t find subjects like ‘philosophy’ and ‘history’. Instead, you would find courses in ‘death’, ‘marriage’, ‘choosing a career’, ‘ambition’, and ‘child rearing’. Too often, these head-on assaults on the great questions are abandoned to the second-rate efforts of gurus and motivational speakers.

So I came to feel it was high time for serious culture to reappropriate them and to consider them with all the rigour and seriousness currently too often lavished on topics of minor relevance. That’s why last year, some colleagues (three of them refugees from Cambridge) set up something we call The School of Life, a tiny institution in London which has big ambitions to define a new, more practical approach to culture. We have had a very successful first year, which suggests to me the depth of frustration that many ordinary people feel for the pedagogic approach of traditional universities.

The University of Cambridge is evidently a wonderful institution. Nevertheless, I have now ended up feeling almost grateful that it disappointed me in such productive ways.

Alain de Botton is a writer and founder of The School of Life (theschooloflife.com). Information on his books can be found at alaindebotton.com.

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