The university would never take the importance of culture for granted. It would know that culture is kept alive by a constant respectful questioning – not by an excessive and snobbish attitude of respect. Therefore, 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 in the ideal University of Life would end up knowing much the same material as their colleagues in other institutions, they would simply have learnt it under a very different set of headings.
On the menu of the ideal university, you wouldn’t find subjects like “philosophy”, “French”, “history” and “the classics”. You would find yourself able to sign up for courses in “death”, “marriage”, “choosing a career”, “ambition”, “child rearing” or “changing your world”. Too often, these head-on assaults on the great questions are abandoned to the second-rate efforts of gurus and motivational speakers. It is time for high culture to reappropriate them and to consider them with all the rigour and seriousness currently too often lavished on topics of minor relevance.
Plato’s Academy, set up in a bucolic corner of Athens in 387 BC remains the best model for people dreaming of Universities of Life. The Greek philosopher’s intention was, broadly-speaking, political.