Becoming a Happiness Education Crusader

I don’t recall really wanting to be a teacher until midway through graduate school. I wanted to be an academic engaged in the creative work of theorizing and scholarship. But then I had what I call a “relevance” crisis. It dawned on me that my academic pursuits weren’t likely to make any meaningful difference in the life of anyone but me. I saw that the difference I make in the lives of my students will be my biggest contribution to life on this planet beyond what I contribute to the lives of my family. That’s when I became a teacher in heart as well as vocation.

I began my full-time teaching career in 1991 at a small private college in Delaware. I arrived with the idealism of a Young Turk, teaming up with other new arrivals at the college to devise and advocate a project that would continually improve our methods of teaching at the college. “If teaching is our purpose, we should strive to be one of the best teaching colleges!” I proclaimed. Boy, was I naïve. Our project hit a wall of resentment and fear and died an early death.

But I was relatively free to hone the methods I thought most likely to make a difference in my political science courses. The trouble is, I started to ponder what difference it is most worthwhile to make. That naturally led to the question: “What is the deepest aspiration of a human being?” Oops. This is the sort of question that opens the door to the realization that what we teach in schools, from K-12 through college, is not really all that relevant to the deepest human aspiration. This realization started me down the long road to writing Educating Angels: Teaching for the Pursuit of Happiness.

Philosophers throughout the ages have generally agreed that happiness is what human beings are really looking for in all they do. Happiness is a word that crops up a lot when you talk to parents about what they want most for their children. But schools don’t directly aim to serve this aspiration. The word ‘happiness’ is seldom heard in the debates about the ends and means of education. You won’t often find it in many school mission statements.

Schools don’t really aim to serve the personal aspirations of students, anyway. For the most part, the educational systems around the world aim to make kids useful for society—which powerful interest groups translate as useful for the national economy. We treat our children as means to social ends in our schools rather than as ends in themselves. This realization hit me hard and it continues to stoke my moral ardor for a fundamental reorientation of education.

At first, I limited my efforts to trying to bring the exploration of happiness into some of my own classes. After all, I teach political philosophy, which explores the question of what sort of government and policies best promotes happiness. I also championed a new honors program that requires four seminars that engage students in exploring Big Questions like the nature of reality, the nature of knowledge, the good life, and the social good. All these questions relate to the question of happiness, so I considered the implementation of the program a success for the cause.

With the exception of a couple colleagues, though, my larger advocacy of making happiness a theme of the core curriculum fell on deaf ears. I simply found it nearly impossible to have a serious discussion about empowering the pursuit of happiness as an end of education. “You can’t teach happiness!” “Promoting happiness promotes selfishness!” “You can’t assess happiness!” I had reasonable answers to all the objections, but few were willing to hear or consider them. At best, I was humored.

Looking back, this was for the best. My frustration drove me to research happiness and how it might be taught in schools, which led to writing Educating Angels.

I discovered a treasure trove of philosophical insights, robust findings of research on happiness, and class-room tested methods designed to promote “well-being.” Kids can be taught to better manage their feelings and develop a more positive outlook. Inner awareness can also lead them to consciously recognize that it feels good to do good and think well of others while treating others poorly and judging them inevitably brings unpleasant feelings. The discerning pursuit of happiness would make them less selfish. Methods of assessing happiness have been developed, but this is beside the point. We should strive to make the most meaningful difference in our schools, not the difference it is easiest to assess.

When I began writing Educating Angels, I thought I was pretty much alone in advocating that empowering students’ pursuit of happiness should be the explicit primary purpose of education. This is not the case. There is a growing international movement for making happiness a central concern in schools. For example, an alliance of leading education organizations in the UK created Action for Happiness in Schools. I also found dozens of websites of organizations that promote various aspects of happiness education in the U.S. It was a relief to learn I was joining a movement rather than trying to create one from scratch.

My quest to make the most meaningful difference I can in the lives of students led to writing a manifesto on happiness education, and I am assuming a new role as public advocate of the cause. I am now a happiness education crusader. I invite you to join me.

About Tony Armstrong

Professor of political science at Wesley College, Dover, Delaware. Author of Educating Angels: Teaching for the Pursuit of Happiness
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