Thursday 3 May 2007

Teaching 'happiness' is anti-educational

Schoolchildren should be given 'happiness' classes, according to Richard Layard, a Labour peer and LSE professor. He wants all state school pupils to receive receive tuition in 'how to be happy' up to the age of 18 and for their progress in the subject to feature in university applications. Apparently this follows an initiative by Wellington College, the £23,000-a-year Berkshire boarding school, to run classes in 'positive psychology' and 'the science of wellbeing.'

Like the teaching union spokesperson interviewed alongside Lord Layard on this morning's Today programme, I agree with his diagnosis of the problem - worrying levels of teenage depression, a test-crammed curriculum - but not with the proposed 'cure'. Despite what Layard and the positive psychologists claim, happiness is not a 'skill' you can teach. It's a by-product of other things - fulfilling relationships, stimulating and creative work, a rich intellectual and cultural life, a sense of social purpose - many of which lie beyond the scope of education.

Education's main contribution to 'happiness' (from a humanist perspective) is to introduce children to the richness of culture in its broadest sense - historical, political, creative, scientific - and to help them develop the understanding and skills to participate fully in that culture. The kind of 'learning' that Layard wants to impose on children, rather like the classes in 'emotional literacy' that the government seems keen on, is driven by an anti-cultural, anti-intellectual bias that seeks to empty the curriculum of content and to substitute learning to 'feel' for critical thinking. I'm not usually a fan of Frank Furedi but on this I think he's right:

In pushing emotional literacy, what some teachers are really doing is abandoning teaching. They are giving up and talking about emotions instead, so that children value all this non-discipline-led activity more than maths, English or science. What is amazing about this is that time and time again, research says that it does not work.

The danger of this kind of content-lite, therapeutic approach to learning, which I saw creeping into adult education in the 80s (no more WEA politics and history, lots of 'skills' and 'personal development') and now seems to be encroaching on schools, is that it may seem nice and warm and liberal, even radical, but it's actually deeply conservative, in effect if not in intention. As has often been pointed out, Mussolini's education policy placed a startlingly similar emphasis on feelings and processes and similarly downgraded critical engagement with knowledge and ideas. Gramsci, on the other hand, believed (rightly in my view) that the priority of radical educators was to introduce students to the breadth of human culture and to empower them to become critical contributors to it (see Harold Entwistle's 1979 book, now seemingly unavailable, Antonio Gramsci: conservative schooling for radical politics).

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