This article is more than 6 years old

Beware of the positive university

Dr Anna Bull and Dr Kim Allen look hard at the ideological roots of Sir Anthony Seldon's recent report for HEPI, and find a number of reasons to be cautious about the conclusions drawn therein.
This article is more than 6 years old

Anna Bull is a Senior Lecturer in Education and Social Justice at the University of York and a founding member of The 1752 Group

Kim Allen is a University Academic Fellow in Sociology at the University of Leeds.

A recent report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) entitled The Positive and Mindful University argues that universities need to do more in order to address the problem of student mental health. The lead author is Sir Anthony Seldon, erstwhile head of Wellington College, and now Vice-Chancellor of the UK’s first private university, University of Buckingham.

Given reports of rising suicide and self-harm among students as well as young people more widely (most recently UCL’s research on teens) a focus on student mental health is welcome and urgent. There are things to commend about the report. It advocates a proactive rather than reactive approach that cultivates good mental health in all students rather than just responding to those who reach crisis point. It also emphasises that higher education is not just about young people’s academic abilities but also developing students as citizens and as people.

However, the causes of and solutions to the problem of student mental health that the report puts forward are highly problematic. One factor the report attributes poor mental health to is ‘difficult transitions’ to university and adapting to living independently away from family. It also highlights the influence of social media, and a ‘permissive’ environment of drinking and drug-taking (not coincidentally the report was released in Freshers’ Week which Seldon pointed to as symbolic of the worst excesses of this culture).

Grit and character

The solution put forward in the report is positive psychology. Positive psychology focuses on building capabilities of choice, self-control and developing qualities such as ‘grit’ and resilience. It is described as follows:

Positive psychology is an evidence-based approach that seeks to understand and develop human character strengths which allow people to cope better with adversity and in turn to flourish. Positive education is simply the application of positive psychology to all levels of education and can be used to refocus universities on their traditional mission of character building as well as intellectual development. … Positive psychology says we do not have to be victims, the passive recipients of misfortune. We do have a choice in life.

There are several aspects of this definition that ring alarm bells: the ‘evidence-based approach’ of positive psychology; its goal of developing human ‘character’ strengths; and its insistence on individual ‘choice’.

The HEPI report draws extensively on the work of the discipline’s founder Martin Seligman: He is referenced 13 times including appearing first within the report’s acknowledgement.  This ‘science of happiness’– and in particular the influence of Seligman – has been convincingly debunked by scholars such as Will Davies, Barbara Ehrenreich and others who have shed light on its entanglement with capitalist and neoliberal ideologies (more of this shortly) and its  highly questionable evidence base (for example some of Seligman’s theories of human learned helplessness are based on experiments with dogs).

The report’s link with ‘character’ education also draws on a dubious intellectual and empirical lineage. In a forthcoming journal article, we critically examine the introduction of ‘character education’ into UK schools.  We demonstrate how this policy agenda has gained traction thanks in a large part to millions of pounds of funding going into university research centres for character education and positive psychology from US rightwing philanthropic organisation the John Templeton Foundation (established by the eponymous Wall Street billionaire). While developing students’ character might seem like a worthy goal (and indeed many schools do this already), we suggest that the particular brand of character education being promoted in the UK through this funding bears a strong resemblance to the free-market and individualistic philosophy of the libertarian Christian right in the US.

Evident lineage

Character education advocates and positive psychology aficionados are highly interlinked, and the most powerful ‘policy entrepreneurs’ in this world can all be found in one place: the International Positive Education Network (IPEN), of which Seldon is President. The key thinkers in this movement are name-checked in the HEPI report, most notably Seligman and his colleague Angela Duckworth (creator of the ‘Grit Scale’), both of whom have been extensively funded by the John Templeton Foundation. While primarily US-based, our research has shown that their ideas have been influential on the UK government’s character education policy agenda as well.

There are reasons, therefore, to be sceptical of the model of positive psychology at the heart of the HEPI report. Its political lineage is clearly evident in the report. For example, in its relentless focus on social media and the ‘permissive’ environment of drinking and drug-taking we see a socially conservative and paternalistic diagnosis of young people’s lack of moral fibre; one not uncommon among ‘character education’ advocates, which includes advocates for abstinence education in the UK.

Furthermore, the report reproduces positive psychology’s emphasis on individual personal responsibility. It is both telling and deeply worrying that there is no mention of wider conditions affecting young people’s mental health such as mounting debt; a housing crisis; and an uncertain graduate labour market. In its claim that we are not victims and that we all have choice, positive psychology responsibilises individuals by fundamentally denying the social and structural factors that affect both our propensity to face adversity and our ability to ‘bounceback’. As Ehrenreich argues:

‘The flip side of positivity is the harsh insistence on personal responsibility: if your business fails or your job is eliminated it must be because you didn’t try hard enough, didn’t believe firmly enough in the inevitability of your success’ .

This model also blames the individual for mental health problems caused by, for example, sexual violence. Indeed the link between the persistent higher rate of mental health problems among women, and the higher rate of sexual violence among women, is a crucial point that needs to be made more often but is absent in the HEPI report. An insistence on choice ignores, for example, the well-documented effects that sexual violence has on the body. A positive education approach would lead to the idea that someone with PTSD can ‘choose’ not to have flashbacks when in fact this is a medical condition that is the body’s natural response to trauma. The patterning of mental health problems by class, gender, and race demonstrates that social position is a major factor in these issues, and must be part of the solution as well.

Finally, by suggesting that academic staff must lead in the delivery of ‘positive education’, such as through enlarged roles for personal tutors, the HEPI report shows little awareness of the conditions of higher education (outside of Seldon’s own private university perhaps). These include increased workloads, casualisation, anxiety-producing policies such as the REF and TEF, and resource constraints; conditions that have arguably contributed to the prevalence of poor mental health among staff themselves .

To conclude, while the report may appear to offer well-meaning and pragmatic interventions, there are reasons to be cautious. On an ideological level it represents positive psychology’s first major move into the field of higher education. The adoption of measures recommended in this report – such as positive psychology classes for all first year students – would be a major coup for the positive psychology movement. We are certainly not arguing against supporting students with strategies that can help anxiety, loneliness or depression. We have ourselves drawn on meditation, exercise or therapy to manage our own mental health. But the appeal of the strategies put forward in this report obscures their wider social, political and intellectual framing. When viewed in this light, embracing positive psychology in UK universities is a dangerous route to travel.

4 responses to “Beware of the positive university

  1. It’s a shame the paper didn’t focus more on the work of Carol Dwek, growth mindset and strengths based development. These approaches came out of Seligman and I’d argue are more recent and relevant to the delivery of education and to improving outcomes for students – many of our primary schools and secondary schools are using a growth mindset approach to learning and development with some success. Many companies, private and public, are using growth mindset to develop their employees.

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  3. I hear your points. There are clearly risks with an uncritical embrace of Positive Psychology which, as you say, is not a perfect science by any means. I’ve written about how it can be crudely scientistic, and illiberal – not recognizing there are valid different ways one can define flourishing and wellbeing, not encouraging sceptical ethical questioning.
    I think there’s a risk, in your response, that you fall prey to the hermeneutics of suspicion – I’ve made the same point to Will Davies in his critique of wellbeing policies ( I.e that there is a secret cabal of right-wing nut-jobs forcing their preachy moral agenda onto students. Firstly, there are policy-makers interested in wellbeing policy across the ideological divide – on the left, there are people like Richard Layard, Jon Cruddas, Geoff Mulgan, Maurice Glasman and Sadiq Khan who embrace a politics of happiness / flourishing / character / virtue.
    Secondly, re paternalism (or maternalism), i think universities need to find a balance between trying to pass on wisdom / lifeskills, and also encouraging critical thinking and autonomy. I think students *themselves* are asking for greater support and guidance in wellbeing. So I dont think paternalism / maternalism is a bad thing per se – in fact, i would wager most sociology departments actively try and pass on critical values to their students.
    You are absolutely right that character-education can put too much emphasis on individual responsibility and not enough on social structural conditions. It’s also the case that sociology can put too much emphasis on social structural conditions as the cause of misery and not enough on the individual’s power to change their own beliefs. There is a meeting place in the middle.
    You are also right that there’s a risk Seldon will be blind to some of the structural and economic challenges facing students, having come from a private boarding school and now heading up a quite expensive private uni with a lot of well-off international students.
    Nonetheless, if you’re interested in universities doing more for both student and staff wellbeing, as I am, I think Seldon is basically an ally, not an enemy. He is pretty much alone among VCs in seeing wellbeing as a central question for universities, not something peripheral.
    best wishes
    Jules Evans

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