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Happiness, Hope, and Despair

Rethinking the Role of Education


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 2: Doubt, Discomfort, and Immortality: Educational Possibilities in the Work of Miguel de Unamuno

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Philosophy begins with doubt: this, as was noted in the previous chapter, is the central proposition explored in Søren Kierkegaard’s posthumously published Philosophical Fragments (Kierkegaard, 1985). Through his pseudonym Johannes Climacus, Kierkegaard set out to consider the potentially destructive power of doubting in (modern) philosophy. His plan, as enunciated in the supplementary materials included with the book, was that Climacus would doubt everything, suffer greatly in doing so, and, to his horror, find he is unable to return to his pre-doubting self. Life would lose its meaning for him, and he would fall into despair (pp. 234–235). The narrative that unfolds is more complex than this description suggests, but Kierkegaard remains true to his underlying idea: the principle of doubt, as interpreted, investigated, and enacted by Climacus, appears to be debilitating rather than enabling. Climacus’s experience is illustrative of the connection between doubt as an epistemological matter on the one hand, and doubt as an ontological and ethical matter on the other. This connection has important educational implications.

Doubt and despair have continued to feature as thematically linked concerns in Western thought following Kierkegaard. Those who have addressed these notions have often also considered, explicitly or implicitly, other questions such as these: Why are we here? How do we give our lives a sense of ← 23 | 24 →purpose and significance? What does it mean to exist as a human being? Does God exist? Is there life after death? If there is no God, is everything permitted...

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