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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 3: Attention, Asceticism, and Grace: Simone Weil and Higher Education

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Academic work is one of those fields containing a pearl so precious that it is worth while to sell all our possessions, keeping nothing for ourselves, in order to be able to acquire it. (Weil, 2001a, p. 65)

The past two decades have witnessed a revival of interest in the work of Simone Weil. Weil died in 1943, aged just 34, but the writings she left behind have influenced philosophers, theologians, classicists, novelists, literary theorists, and social activists, among others. To date, however, Weil’s books have attracted relatively little attention from educationists (exceptions include Caranfa, 2010; Lewin, 2014; Liston, 2008; Smith, 2001; Tubbs, 2005b). This is surprising, given the obvious connections between Weil’s ideas and those advanced by a number of other educational thinkers. These links are especially strong in areas such as spirituality and education, feminist theory in education, and critical pedagogy. Weil worked in schools and some of her writings address educational questions directly. More broadly, it might be said that in Weil’s epistemology and ethic, the basis for a distinctive approach to teaching and learning can be found.

This chapter identifies some of the key concepts in Weil’s thought—gravity, grace, decreation, and attention—and considers their educational implications. It is argued that much can be learned from Weil in seeking to recover the ← 37 | 38 →“soul” of higher education. The term “soul” is employed here not in a religious sense but rather as an indication of something deeper, more essential, in higher...

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