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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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Chapter 1: Education, Faith, and Despair: Wrestling with Kierkegaard

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What is despair? Most of us acknowledge that despair exists, but seldom pause to examine it closely. When we do give some thought to this difficult subject, we usually take it for granted that despair is an entirely negative state of mind or mode of being—something we would want to avoid or seek to overcome. Education, more often than not, is seen as a means for lifting people out of despair. Education offers hope, and hope is seen as the antithesis of despair. This chapter calls these apparently self-evident views into question. I begin with Kierkegaard’s influential account of despair in his late work, The Sickness Unto Death (Kierkegaard, 1989). Kierkegaard is helpful in allowing us to see that our capacity for despair is a distinguishing feature of human life. He shows that despair may be present even where happiness, serenity, and beauty seem to prevail. Kierkegaard’s faith-based answer to the question of despair is, however, not without its difficulties. I argue (i) that despair need not always be seen as a problem that requires, or lends itself to, a “solution” (of a faith-based kind or of any other kind); (ii) that education, far from diminishing our sense of despair, may heighten it; and (iii) that this provides not a reason for abandoning education but rather a basis for committing to it more strongly than ever.

Written under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus, The Sickness Unto Death was published in 1849. It is arguably Kierkegaard’s “most polished and mature...

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