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Happiness, Hope, and Despair

Rethinking the Role of Education

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Peter Roberts

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.
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Introduction: Living on the Edge: Happiness, Hope, and Despair in Education

← x | 1Introduction

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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 | 2 →lengths 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...

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