Happiness and Education
reviewed by Stacy Otto - 2005
Happiness may seem an unusual topic for educational philosophy to some, but to many it rings true, a long overlooked and provocative topic of considerable interest, a thoughtful, fresh line of inquiry. The reticence of some may be due to the nature of the term. A word like happiness may well be one of those that has “lost” its meaning to a multitude of meanings, lost like a reply to “How are you?” when answered by “fine.” But in Noddings’ work happiness is pushed beyond the level of mere platitude because it is adults and children alike (and perhaps especially parents) who consistently state that happiness is what they most want from life, what they seek for themselves and their loved ones. So, if happiness is a major aim and desire of American culture, why is it absent from the theory and practice of schooling, the discourse of educational reform and policy? And why do so many aspects of current-day American schooling work systematically against the happiness and joy of students’ learning?
In her recent book, Happiness and Education, Nel Noddings attempts to answer these and other questions and, in so doing, adds to the field of moral education, a line of inquiry guided by her substantial contributions in the theory of care. She embarks upon an extensive argument to explore this subject borne of her “concern about the connections among happiness, misery, boredom, and schooling” (p. 1). She begins by illustrating the close connection between happiness and education—the two are inextricably related—in that American education should have as a central aim happiness, for happy people “are rarely mean, violent, or cruel” (p. 2) and, in turn, yield a happy collective society. Noddings declares her disappointment in her own Christian upbringing with its “fear-based admonitions to be good, and the habit of deferring happiness to some later date” (p. 1) as thwarting the inclusion of happiness as an educational aim. Suffering is, for Noddings, not essential to creating meaning. The danger in our present form of schooling lies within the relationship between adult (parent, teacher, policymaker) and child (student). This is often manifested as a coercive relationship and “coercion damages the caring relation” (p. 67) and incites the rebellious nature of the child, rendering happiness impossible.
Noddings recounts the history of various views of happiness, focusing on Aristotle’s idea that it is humans’ engagement in contemplation that constitutes happiness. This trope has heavily influenced American schooling, privileging scholarly work over practical and creating a moral dilemma for schools, a divisive move that reduces students to economic categories. In such a scheme, service occupations imply failure on the part of schooling, never troubling the idea that “we fail [students] when we lead them to believe that only economic success is success” (p. 35). She advocates for a strengthened sense of moral community, a democratic life, and a de-emphasizing of the monetary aspects of work as it relates to happiness. Such interventions might still the need of humans “to get away from dullness and sameness”—to escape—and inspire one “to become an individual” (p. 225). This need to escape manifests itself within the classroom, for it is there that “the effects of standardized testing have aggravated an already dull life” (pp. 244–245), wrecking those educational experiences such as poetry, “that which should be shared with delight” (p. 37), and in that delight a pathway to happiness. Noddings calls for meaningful engagement in aims-talk as an antidote to the acceptance of those aims presently taken for granted in American education. For “one function of aims-talk [is] to challenge the existing roles by which a society has organized itself” (p. 85). This is the (frankly daunting) task at hand for American education.
Noddings’ treatise on happiness and education brings to mind several questions. Can we, as educators, prepare children for psychically happy and healthy lives? Noddings concentrates on external forces to yield happiness, but can we produce a happy citizenry if we rely principally upon the external rather than setting up the conditions for people to become happy? Is a single happiness possible—or desirable? What would such a happiness look like and how might we enable the construction of individual happiness(es) in education? Each of these questions might be addressed by employing a particular theoretical frame, that of object relations theory (a branch of psychoanalytic theory), a group of ideas that Noddings refers to indirectly throughout this volume and elsewhere in her work. Use of such theory is immediately brought to mind by the eerie coincidence of similarity in title: D. W. Winnicott’s book of essays is called Home Is Where We Start From (1986) and Noddings’ recent book is entitled Starting at Home (2002).
Winnicott theorizes the emotion of happiness as a relationship between humans and their environments (the world of objects). He calls this “living creatively,” the discovery of which leads the individual to a psychically happy and healthy life. This is accomplished by successful navigation of the mother/child relationship (his work privileges the feminine as many have said of Noddings’) to emotional maturity. Living creatively is the self-conscious refusal of normalization (arguably the goal of present-day education), and the retention of “something personal, perhaps secret, that is unmistakably yourself” (Winnicott, 1986, p. 43) that ultimately earns happiness. Living creatively is manifested, as Noddings says, in experiencing “everyday life as a source of joy and contentment” (p. 56).
Winnicott posits that, in the process of emotional development, children move from having every need satisfied the moment it is experienced (the infant’s notion of omnipotence) to being able to endure increasing levels of frustration. This includes establishing comfort in being alone (at first in the reliable presence of another/mother/teacher) and eventually in the child coming to value solitude. Noddings speaks directly to the need for children to be taught to endure frustration, calling it “possibly the hardest task of education—to bring students to a tolerance for ambiguity that will not paralyze them and prevent them from making commitments” (p. 164). Noddings parallels Winnicott again when she declares her belief “that moments of solitude and quiet are necessary” (p. 174) to the pursuit of happiness. Winnicott insists upon the child’s knowledge of and comfort with solitude as integral to the adult’s ability to live creatively, for it is in this solitude that the child learns the role of play and begins to value thoughts with no consequence. In turn, Noddings laments the current focus of schools on the normalization of children in that “reflection is unlikely to occur unless it is demonstrated, invited…sustained,” (p. 229) and valued.
By employing a theoretical framework of Winnicott’s object relations theory, Noddings’ work becomes a roadmap for parents, educators, and policymakers to navigate the current political clime, providing developmental ballast for rethinking the aims of American education, for a meaningful balancing of aims with needs and wants. Research in emotion and education is all too uncommon, yet the need for this important work is made clear simply by considering “the measures [Americans] choose to define happiness” (p. 183): extroversion, popularity, and goodness. Troubling, indeed, is the idea that good people are happy, bad people are not, or as Noddings posits, “As parents, we want our children to be good…because we believe in the connection between goodness and happiness” (p. 157). Most alarming in this statement is the unspoken relationship between goodness, “the quest for power and the assertion of innocence” (Duneier, 1992, p. 138). Steele (1990) draws a parallel between the three—goodness, power, and innocence—by explaining that humans do not seek power (equated with entitlement) unless they first believe in their own fundamental innocence (equated with goodness). This is a pernicious link because, “Our innocence [and our human goodness] always inflates us and deflates those we seek power over” (Steele quoted in Duneier, 1992, p. 138), a condition that precludes the shared happiness of all. This relationship should be used to underscore the importance of the conversation Noddings invokes, a persuasive argument for refuting both a normalizing education and the implications of the current insistence on the “silver bullet” theory of educational reform.
As with all true solutions, the way is difficult and the task overwhelming. To begin, though, Noddings advocates for teaching about home through defining home and humans’ relationship to the natural world, and re-focusing upon parenting and human relationships. These are each different sources and forms of pleasure, happiness, joy, although she cautions against making “the mistake of supposing that happiness can be a sort of steady state of pleasure” (p. 71). The most immediate need, she opines, comes in convincing “parents that schooling is a public good, not a consumer good” (p. 241), and in calling on parents to model civic responsibility. Many children’s schools—their places of education—are horrible places and this, she decries, is disgraceful. Her noble argument is for change, for insisting upon and delivering better physical spaces in public schools. Such improvement cannot rest upon claims of improved learning, for that is an amoral argument: “Children should not have to earn decent living and learning conditions” (p. 242). It is for these reasons that Noddings calls for “an ongoing, serious examination of everything we do in schools” (p. 258), and that such a task be accomplished before the standards-based accountability movement undoes decades of meaningful school reform and further drives students away from and out of schools.
Duneier, M. (1992). Slim’s table: Race, respectability, and masculinity.
Noddings, N. (2002). Starting at home: Caring and social policy.
Steele, S. (1990). The content of our character.
Winnicott, D. W. (1986). Home is where we start from: Essays by a psychoanalyst.