Q & A on Educating Angels

Q: Do you think you’ll persuade many people that empowering the pursuit of happiness is the purpose of education?

A: I think almost everyone would agree that schools should contribute to students’ happiness, but not many I’ve talked to about it see a practical point to making it the explicit primary purpose of education. Education is already meant to give students a better life, so why confuse things with nebulous talk about happiness?

But if you’re not consciously aiming at a target, the chances are slim you’ll hit it. I think I make a very good case that we can considerably improve children’s prospects for a happier life, and that, since we can, we should. I think the claim that we should teach children to look for happiness within as we inform their pursuit without will resonate with a lot of people. I think many of those who read the book will find it persuasive.

Q: Do you think happiness can really be taught in schools?

A: Not happiness per se. The essence of freedom is deciding for yourself what happiness is and pursuing it as you see fit. We are educating students to be free citizens of a free society. We should not be teaching a particular notion of happiness in our schools. But we can empower the pursuit of happiness as each student comes to see it by helping them develop the skills of inner awareness and having them explore different perspectives on the nature, sources, and means of happiness.

Inner awareness is essential, because the ability to change how you feel from within requires it. It gives students a better idea of what they really want to feel, and opens the door to conscious control of thoughts as a means to change feelings. The evidence so far suggests children can be readily taught the basic skills of inner awareness. Exploring alternative perspectives on happiness would make them aware of choices and would improve their discernment in choosing what to feel and how to feel it.

This would be no small achievement. In the accounting of their hearts, it would be the most valuable outcome of their education.

Q: How much experience do you have using the methods you propose?

A: Teaching mindfulness would be a stretch in political science courses, so, no, I have not tried that yet. My knowledge about teaching inner awareness comes from reading about what others have done. But I have long used the alternative perspective approach where possible for the past fifteen years. I have had an opportunity to guide students on an exploration of the Big Questions of philosophy using alternative perspective and community of inquiry approaches in my honors courses. I have taught the Nature of Reality and the Social Good for most of the past seven years. I have been quite pleased by the level of engagement and students’ dawning awareness of the personal value of inquiry into these questions.

Q: You are pushing a “transformation” of education. How difficult—and expensive—do you think the changes you recommend would be?

A: The politics of educational change can be brutal, but the changes I propose will be relatively easy and inexpensive to implement in schools. I am suggesting that space be made in existing curricula, perhaps a single class, throughout the years of public education. The class would be dedicated to teaching and practicing the skills of inner awareness in grade school, and to age-appropriate inquiry into happiness and other Big Questions of life throughout the years of public education.

There would be some initial costs due to faculty training and outside consulting, but there is no reason the operating costs of schools would increase in general. Other changes, such as the adaptation of traditional subject matter, would evolve over time. What I advocate would change the “heart” of education, which would indeed constitute a transformation, but it wouldn’t require scrapping the current system to replace it with an entirely new one.

Q: Will teachers have reason to worry about the changes you want to bring about?

A: Change is always worrisome. Teachers have seen changes come and go with more cost than benefit. But the changes I advocate would free teachers willing to participate from the ghettoes of their subjects. And it would also free them from the role of transmitting authoritative facts to uninterested students. Being a guide of inquiry rather than an expert is liberating and a lot more fun. It takes practice, though. You have to be quick on your mental feet, adept at steering wandering discussions back to the topic, and good about keeping your personal biases from showing. You also have to refrain from jumping in to dominate discussions when they start running aground. I’m still working on that one.

Q: Some of the big concerns today are socially and economically disadvantaged children being left behind, of kids being doped with Ritalin because they can’t pay attention, and of young adults graduating without the basic skills they need to make a living.

You don’t really say much about these issues in your book. Does that make your message less relevant to the reality in our schools?

A: I address the issue of basic skills directly in several places in the book, and the other issues indirectly. These problems confront us no matter what we try to teach. They would be no more problematic for trying to empower children’s pursuit of happiness than for trying to teach them the traditional basics. In fact, the probability that children would experience some immediate affective rewards in learning the skills of inner awareness makes me believe they would be less problematic. The approaches dedicated to empowering their pursuit of happiness avoid competition and comparison. They open the way for emphasizing intrinsic motivation rather than the far less effective extrinsic motivators such as grades. Students who are less adept in their cognitive abilities may find some pride in their affective abilities.

Not all students will be able or willing to taste the riper fruits of what they are taught, but that is true of anything we teach. From what I have read about teaching various versions of mindfulness in schools, it has led to less disruption and fighting, calmer students better able to focus, and enhanced social skills. Apparently they learn better. The skills of inner awareness and a pedagogy more clearly devoted to their happiness may reduce some of the problems in schools. The argument that we should hold off on empowering children’s pursuit of happiness because some are disadvantaged doesn’t hold water. Is this a reason to shortchange their hearts? Focusing on their pursuit of happiness will not wave away their problems, but if it helps them gain at least some ability to feel better than otherwise, they will be better off than they are now.

Q: You come down pretty hard on higher education for emphasizing scholarship and money over the happiness of their students. How do you think that will play in the ivory tower?

A: No doubt it will touch a nerve. But I am only adding my voice to a growing chorus of criticisms about higher education. I know many academics will be rather irritated by the call to give the difference we make in the lives of students emphatic priority over scholarship. This would threaten the status, prestige, prerogatives, distribution of funds, and relative power based on current priorities.

I may be overly provocative here, glossing over the social utility of some scholarship and the efforts to make higher education more meaningful and coherent, but I wish to make the moral issue as clear as possible. We cannot pursue diverse aims without compromising most or all of them. The aim of making the most meaningful difference we can in the lives of our students is seriously—in my experience blatantly—compromised by prevailing priorities in academe. The defense of the status quo should not be allowed to hide behind moral obfuscations. The status quo in academe betrays the higher interests of our students, and that is a big moral issue. It is also a practical issue in terms of the good of society of general.

I think many of my colleagues would find the changes I advocate congenial and non-threatening. There is already a great push to make education more meaningful and coherent, and a great deal of rhetoric is devoted to caring about students. A core curriculum dedicated to exploring perspectives on the nature, sources, and means of happiness would aim for the greatest difference in the lives of students we could hope to make. The primary universal aspiration of human beings is the obvious unifying theme of education, the natural focus for a coherent integration of all disciplines.

I believe the potential contribution of the liberal arts to this aspiration also provides the most compelling argument for the practical value of those disciplines.

I am relatively confident many in academe will come to see that the changes I advocate are in their better interests.

Q: What do you think the main criticism of your book will be?

A: The main criticism will be that I am advocating another touchy-feely diversion from the basics. You can’t be happy without a job, they will say. We should concentrate on the skills kids will need to get a job in a highly competitive global economy.

The contention that the basics and “21st century skills” would suffer if empowering the pursuit of happiness were our main focus is false. In fact, the methods of philosophical inquiry I advocate would continually exercise these skills. Reading, writing, critical thinking, creative thinking, social skills, awareness of the social environment, thinking outside the box, and a broad foundation of knowledge are required by inquiry into alternative perspectives on the Big Questions of life. The approach provides a far more meaningful context and engaging vehicle for learning, and this will likely translate into greater motive for learning. Students will be more likely to learn if what we teach is more immediately meaningful to them. Done wisely and well, empowering the pursuit of happiness will not be a diversion from the basics; it will be a better way to teach them.

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About Tony Armstrong

Professor of political science at Wesley College, Dover, Delaware. Author of Educating Angels: Teaching for the Pursuit of Happiness
This entry was posted in Introductory Posts, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Q & A on Educating Angels

  1. Pingback: Wanted: Happy Teachers | College Ready

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