Happiness, Hope, and Despair

Rethinking the Role of Education

by Peter Roberts (Author)
©2016 Textbook 140 Pages
Series: Complicated Conversation, Volume 43


In the Western world it is usually taken as given that we all want happiness, and our educational arrangements tacitly acknowledge this. Happiness, Hope, and Despair argues, however, that education has an important role to play in deepening our understanding of suffering and despair as well as happiness and joy. Education can be uncomfortable, unpredictable, and unsettling; it can lead to greater uncertainty and unhappiness. Drawing on the work of Søren Kierkegaard, Miguel de Unamuno, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Simone Weil, Paulo Freire, and others, Peter Roberts shows why these features of educational life need not be feared; to the contrary, they can be seen as a source of hope and human fulfilment.
After years of negotiating an education system dominated by the language of competition, performance, and economic advancement, students and teachers often long for something different; they seek not just measurable success but also opportunities to ask searching questions of themselves and the world they encounter. Happiness, Hope, and Despair makes an important contribution toward meeting this need. It fosters a rethinking of the nature, purpose, and value of education, and opens up possibilities for further scholarly and professional inquiry.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction: Living on the Edge: Happiness, Hope, and Despair in Education
  • Chapter 1: Education, Faith, and Despair: Wrestling with Kierkegaard
  • Chapter 2: Doubt, Discomfort, and Immortality: Educational Possibilities in the Work of Miguel de Unamuno
  • Chapter 3: Attention, Asceticism, and Grace: Simone Weil and Higher Education
  • Chapter 4: Hope, Despair, and Liberation: Paulo Freire and Educational Struggle
  • Chapter 5: Educative Suffering? Dostoevsky as Teacher
  • Chapter 6: Pain, Pleasure, and Peacefulness: An Educational Journey
  • Chapter 7: Complicating the Curriculum: Happiness, Despair, and Education
  • References
  • Credits
  • Index
  • Series Index

← x | 1Introduction


Happiness, Hope, and Despair in Education

In the contemporary Western world, there is an obsession with “happiness.” Everyone, it seems, is expected to seek happiness and to avoid situations that might lead to unhappiness. As part of the wider process of marketization, happiness has become a commodity: something to be packaged, advertised, sold, and consumed. Educationists, while often critical of broader neoliberal social and economic trends, have for the most part accepted the importance of happiness in human life, and have typically espoused teaching and learning goals and objectives consistent with this view. Alternative terms have sometimes been employed to describe what is at stake in establishing desirable educational arrangements—reference might be made, for example, to having “high self-esteem,” achieving a sense of “well-being,” or developing a “positive outlook”—but the underlying assumptions in each case are frequently the same. It is taken as given that education should make us feel better, not worse, and that teachers have a responsibility to prepare students to become happy, well-integrated, contributing citizens in their lives beyond schools.

The idea that education might, at least in part, be concerned with promoting unhappiness—and perhaps even a certain kind of despair—is very much at odds with the spirit of our age. Of course, acknowledgment that some students are not happy is commonplace, and educationists have gone to considerable ← 1 | 2lengths to understand the causes of such unhappiness and to respond positively to such situations. Where students are unhappy—and this may be in kindergartens, schools, or tertiary education institutions—we seek to address this as a “problem” with “solutions” that can range from changing subjects or classes, to acquiring new friends or interests, to counselling, and, increasingly, to drugs. Seldom will the ailment be identified precisely as “despair,” but where this is the case, it will usually be taken for granted that such a state must be avoided or overcome. Despair, where it is examined at all, will often be seen as the very antithesis of happiness, and education will be regarded as a means to lift us from this profound form of unhappiness and hopelessness to a more desirable state of mind. To say that one is being well educated yet existing in a state of despair would thus seem to be a contradiction in terms. The movement, as it is often depicted, should be from despair to hope—hope for a mode of being, or a set of psychological and behavioral attributes, or a social system where despair no longer figures prominently.

It is possible, however, to see happiness, hope, and despair in a somewhat different educational light, and this will be the task of the present volume. Concerns about depression and anxiety among young people have been expressed many times over recent years, both at academic conferences and in the popular media. Yet, few attempts have been made to analyze, from a philosophical standpoint, the root causes of such experiences. Moreover, the focus among educationists has often been on formal institutions, particularly at the school level, with little said about the broader process of lifelong learning. Additionally, there has been an excessive reliance on a limited range of scholarly resources—typically non-fiction research studies, and often of a quantitative kind—with scant attention to other texts and modes of human expression from which insight into the nature of unhappiness, despair, and anxiety can be gained. A good deal has been said about happiness and hope in education, but rather less has been said about despair. This book goes some way toward addressing these underdeveloped areas via a return to the work of thinkers such as Søren Kierkegaard, Miguel de Unamuno, Simone Weil, and others who, collectively, have contributed much to our understanding of despair and its significance in the formation of human beings. (It is acknowledged that “unhappiness,” “depression,” “anxiety,” and “despair,” though often related to each other, are not equivalents. In the chapters that follow, some of the differences and points of overlap between these terms will become evident.)

I shall argue that despair need not be seen an aberrant state from which we should always seek to escape; rather, it can be a key element of a well-lived ← 2 | 3 →human life. Education, I maintain, is meant to create a state of discomfort, and to this extent may also make us unhappy, but is all the more important for that. Indeed, the fact that we can experience such discomfort is a source of hope and possibility. To be educated is, in part, to be aware of the despair that is present in many lives, and to be open to examining and addressing this. We live in a world where happiness is marketed aggressively to those seeking a “cure” from depression or anxiety. We are, it seems, always trying to rid ourselves of such experiences: to dispense with them, or to solve them, or to flee from them. But not all forms of unhappiness or despair have, or need, a readily identifiable, quick-fix “solution.” This is not to “advocate” despair in any way; nor is it to suggest that well established systems for dealing with the difficulties people experience—therapy, group work, medication, and so on—will not continue to be important. There is no suggestion in this book that we should withdraw from the need to identify, analyze, resist, and transform conditions of oppression and marginalization; to the contrary, the chapters that follow make it plain that indifference to these forms of human experience would be abhorrent. It is not a matter of justifying or dismissing suffering, pain, and despair, but of attempting to understand these aspects of human existence more deeply and of learning from them. Experiences of unhappiness and despair, both individually and collectively, can teach, if we are willing to pay attention and respond creatively to them. Addressing despair in this way does not extinguish hope; it rekindles it and breathes fresh life into it.

The notion of “living on the edge” connects strongly with the risk-taking attitudes and behaviors exhibited by many young people today, and warrants careful exploration from an ethical and educational perspective. This metaphor allows us to consider, in a fresh light, what dwelling in marginal(ized) educative spaces might mean. This book focuses not so much on those who live physically on the edge as on the inner spaces often excluded from educational discourse. Forms of inner life that involve discomfort, pain, and unhappiness sometimes seem to be “no go” areas for serious inquiry, particularly if the idea is to probe them for their potential educative value. Despair is undeniably connected with social and economic circumstances but it is also experienced inwardly, often in a manner that has a profound bearing on what we seek to know and do and be. As we shall see in the chapters that follow, experiencing despair in this way need not be incompatible with also finding, expressing, and sharing great joy and fulfilment in life. Happiness and unhappiness, hope and despair, can co-exist, and the appreciation of any one these elements of human existence can be enhanced through understanding and experiencing another.

← 3 | 4 →It is possible to speak of whole communities living in despair, with, for example, appalling housing conditions, grinding poverty, few prospects for work, and serious health problems. There is a substantial body of work concerned with despair in this sense, and continuing efforts to understand and address the desperate needs of such groups are much needed, both among researchers and in policy and practice. The margins explored in the present volume are, however, also worthy of further investigation. The principal figures who provide the theoretical and literary sustenance for the book were themselves all writers who lived “dangerously”—who “risked it all,” in an existential sense, for their philosophical and political commitments and their mode of life. Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Unamuno, Hesse, Weil, and Freire all had extraordinary lives, all experienced the pain of suffering, and all sought to integrate, in the most authentic way possible, their words with their deeds.


ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (October)
Weil Unamuno Kierkegaard education Dostoevsky
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 140 pp.

Biographical notes

Peter Roberts (Author)

Peter Roberts is Professor of Education and Director of the Educational Theory, Policy and Practice Research Hub at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. His most recent books include Education, Ethics and Existence: Camus and the Human Condition (with Andrew Gibbons and Richard Heraud, 2015), Better Worlds: Education, Art, and Utopia (with John Freeman-Moir, 2013), Paulo Freire in the 21st Century: Education, Dialogue, and Transformation (2010), and Neoliberalism, Higher Education and Research (with Michael Peters, 2008).


Title: Happiness, Hope, and Despair