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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 7: Complicating the Curriculum: Happiness, Despair, and Education

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Over the last two decades a booming industry in “happiness” has emerged. Conceived as a “new science” (Layard, 2005), academic research on happiness has attracted widespread media attention and spawned a host of more popular publications, many of which have a “self-help” flavor. The field of study most influential in these developments is known as Positive Psychology. Positive Psychology focuses on good health rather than illness; it emphasizes strengths instead of weaknesses; and it promotes the cultivation of a form of authentic happiness that will enable people to realize their potential for “lasting fulfillment” (Seligman, 2002). The term “well-being” (or, more precisely, “subjective well-being”) is now sometimes preferred over “happiness,” but the sentiments remain the same: the aim is to develop attitudes, abilities, and activities that will enable students to feel better about themselves and others, flourishing as individuals in an environment where positive, optimistic thinking prevails.

These developments have particular relevance for ongoing, complicated scholarly conversations over education and the curriculum. Ideas from Positive Psychology have found their way into educational theory, policy, and practice, with books and programs devoted to the teaching of happiness in schools (e.g., MacConville & Rae, 2012; Morris, 2009). The point of this ← 101 | 102 →chapter is not to undermine the potential value of such programs, or to mount a comprehensive critique of Positive Psychology. Rather, in the company of other philosophers of education who have engaged contemporary discourses on happiness (e.g., Cigman, 2014; Gibbs, 2014; Miller, 2008; Noddings, 2003; Smeyers, Smith...

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