Thursday, May 10, 2007

Stoic education

I was a bit taken aback by a brief report in the Guardian explaining that some teachers from the UK have visited the US to see schools which implement 'happiness' lessons. This is already something of an odd idea, I think, since I reckon Aristotle had it right when he saw an important role in early life simply for the inculcation of positive character traits, habits, dispositions and the like. It's odd to give lessons in happiness, in other words, if that is any more than encouraging children to become the sort of people who might in time go on to live happy lives. Perhaps 18 hours of 'role, playing, confidence-building games and discussion' might help but it certainly doesn't constitute much of an education in happiness.

But perhaps that's OK. Surely these aren't meant to be sufficient for an education in happiness, whatever that is. The bigger surprise came as I read on, since it became clear that the happiness involved is not anything Aristotle would have recognised and, I think, is not really anything that I recognise as deserving the name either. Instead, happiness seems to be equated with something called 'emotional resilience'.

Here is Manchester city council's director of children's services, Pauline Newman:

"This is very much about providing children and young people with the tools they need to manage their feelings and motivation and to find solutions. The work complements what schools already do in parts of the curriculum and in ways they support children.

"Like adults, some children and young people seem able to deal with anything that life brings their way, but others do need help. Learning the kind of skills that will help them cope better emotionally with these things can make an enormous difference in young people's lives - not just at school but later in life as adults. "

Manage their feelings? As in 'anger management'? Dealing with anything life brings their way? Coping emotionally? Am I the only one to find these thoroughly depressing components of a happy life?

Certainly enormous and extravagant bursts of rage at inappropriate objects are not a good idea; they disrupt and damage the person and those around them. But what is it to 'manage' these feelings? Perhaps it's some good old-fashioned English bottling up of one's feelings. Or perhaps its the older Stoic notion of apatheia: putting up with the world because of an acceptance of one's place within the order of things.

This doesn't sound like happiness to me. And I'm worried that children of 11 years old are being encouraged to take on this sort of idea. Surely it would be better to offer them hope, encourage their ambition, excite their creative and intellectual abilities? That sounds like a useful set of tools for happiness to me. But then again, perhaps Manchester city council thinks it is better to have 'emotionally resilient' young people who put up with things as they are.


Choppa said...

"Oh, what a lovely war!" Schools are such wonderful mirrors of society...

Thanks for the anataractic reaction to the idea of sensi-training 11-year-olds. Better teach them feminist self-defence and how to direct, project and channel rage.

And, not to forget, how to organize so each individual child doesn't just react alone against a crushingly faceless establishment.

Leon said...

I've been trying to fight the tradition of noble apatheia myself, and so just completed my undergraduate thesis on agonistic ethics and athletic medicine in Greek gymnasia. Perhaps on account of my own emotional instability, I loathe ideals of perfectly peaceable minds, and would certainly have my children admire Achilles, who, as Plato tells us, had two opposed diseases within his soul. And maybe we could add the Nietzschean jab about the castration of the intellect?