The Pursuit of Happiness … in the Classroom

What is the goal of school? What do we want students to know or to be able to do when they graduate?

While there are countless ways to answer these questions, there is general agreement that students should leave high school with the knowledge and skills they need to be informed citizens and to find gainful employment (either right after high school or after graduating from college). To endure, our democracy needs educated, law-abiding citizens, and our economy needs people with valuable skills who can work well with others. Other possible desirable outcomes for students are a virtuous and prosocial “character,” soft skills or “emotional intelligence,” and emotional resilience or “grit.” So, in addition to the traditional civic and economic goals, there could be psychological goals for schools.

I’ve never heard anyone say that the purpose of education is to get high standardized test scores. Yet, it is with test scores that we measure the efficacy of our schools and teachers, and the quality of student outcomes. Standardized tests focus on students’ reading and math knowledge and skills, and what you test is usually what you teach. So, judging from what we test, and from the national discussion about directing students towards STEM fields, schools today are focused on the economic goal of preparing students for employment after college (not after high school). Civic and psychological goals suffer from benign neglect, and new goals do not advance in the face of the economic orthodoxy.

As a teacher and educational designer, I have civic, economic, and psychological goals for my students. I want them to know enough in every subject area to be able to study anything they want in college, and to pursue any professional path after college. I want them to reason well about complex political questions. I want them to be open-minded, able to think for themselves, and inclined to challenge conventional wisdom. I want them to be optimistic about what the world can be, and about their role in it. And I want them to defend liberty and justice for all.

Until very recently, when I thought about these goals I didn’t realize what actually mattered most to me as a teacher and as a parent. This larger purpose was always implicit, just below the point of recognition: I want my students and children to be happy at school and to learn how to be happy in life. When I speak to teachers and parents, this seems to be their goal, too, but it is rarely explicit and it is never discussed as being the proper focus of the academic program in schools. After twenty-six years as a student, and more than fifteen years as a teacher, I now realize that the ultimate goal of primary and secondary schools should be student happiness.

By “happiness,” I don’t mean something ephemeral or passive. I mean something that is enduring and active. I’m not describing the pleasant feeling you get from a sunny day; I’m describing understanding born of effort, problem solving, achievement, and reflection. This is the happiness Aristotle wrote about in Nicomachean Ethics, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about optimal experience in his book Flow: “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times. … The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” Or, as Theodore Roosevelt said, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” Philosophy, literature, and experience suggest that happiness is the product of how you think and what you do, not of what happens to you. Happiness is a choice, built on reflection about the human condition. And, I submit, what you need to know and to do to be happy can be taught in school.

This is a philosophical goal for schools. It is radically different from what we have now, but not very different from the original goal for education articulated thousands of years ago.

For students to be happy in school, and to learn how to be happy in life, educators and educational designers should expand their focus beyond the economic goal of school in two important ways. First, we should create and maintain a daily experience for students built on kindness and humanity through and through, in how adults speak to and treat students and how students speak to and treat one another. Second, there should be a focus on personally meaningful, challenging, and important work across the curriculum, with a core of essential literary and philosophical works from around the globe. If students are doing work that they know is worth doing across classes, while also working with core texts that promote reflection and help them develop the intellectual resources to withstand “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” daily happiness is possible in school, and the path to long-term happiness will be visible.

In closing, whether the goal of school should be to promote student happiness seems to be a question that, once you ask it, answers itself.

This article was published in Loudoun Now on May 20, 2016.