Friday, January 28, 2011

Do WE Make a Difference? - Happiness as a Goal of Education

I apologize if this post smells of mothballs. I am utilizing some skills I had packed away.

ὅτε ἥμην νήπιος, ἐλάλουν ὡς νήπιος, ἐφρόνουν ὡς νήπιος, ἐλογιζόμην ὡς νήπιος· ὅτε γέγονα ἀνήρ, κατήργηκα τὰ τοῦ νηπίου.

The passage above is 1 Corinthians 13:11. One of my party tricks comes from the B.A. I have in Classical Studies, specifically Ancient Greek. Yes, I spent time earning that degree. The thing is, there is something liberating in translating a passage of Greek (says the ultimate Nerd). As I translated this one, I felt something familiar stir in me: a sense of discovery. Every time I translate a passage, I discover something unexpected. Consider my translation of the verse from Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth:

"When I was still a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I reasoned as a child: When I became a man, I nullified those childish things."

ἐφρόνουν means to care thoughtfully about something, hence understood. Meanwhile, ἐλογιζόμην means to reason out, like an argument. Both words represent thought of one kind or another, but both are present in the man as a child. Essentially, taken together, they equal the curiosity of the child, the sense of wonder children have innately wired to their perceptions of the world. As Willingham (2009) points out, people are very curious, but they are not naturally great thinkers. This is, of course, where schools come in, interceding and unintentionally severing the sense of wonder.

In a recent blog post (click the title of this post to read it), Jim Burke alludes to Hesse's Siddhartha, referencing how people must become their own teachers take "what wisdom will help us make sense of the world and find our place and purpose in that world." The heart of the post considers whether or not what teachers do makes a difference. People seek Truth about how to be happy, sending their nets into murkier and murkier waters only to come back with unrecognizable fish. The question of difference-making does revolve around whether or not the students we teach go on to successful and healthy lives, but I think happiness is perhaps something that is not readily added to that list. In large part, that is probably because nobody really knows what happiness , or "subjective well-being," is.

The verse from 1 Corinthians comes from the famous "Love" chapter; if anything makes people happy, it has to be love. Right? Well, coincidentally, the chapter contains another verse discussing how love helps us to "know as we are known." One of my thinking role models is Parker Palmer who wrote a book entitled To Know as We Are Known. One of the chapters is called "Knowing is Loving." OK. So Love, that which makes people happy, is knowing. Knowing what? Anything, says Palmer, as long as it is a knowledge that springs from love. Seems a little circular? Let me explain.

Quoting Dostoevsky, Palmer says that a knowledge that comes from love can be a "harsh and beautiful thing." He says that knowledge from love "may require us to change, even sacrifice, for the sake of what we know...If we want a knowledge that will rebind our broken world, we must reach for that deeper passion" (p. 9). He explains that "deeper passion" as "a bond of awesome responsibility as well as transforming joy; it will call us to involvement, mutuality, accountability" (p. 9).

So, I must whip a classroom full of thirty-five young minds into the fever pitch of a church revival over the greatness of Shakespeare. I can just see it now... Nope, just a pep rally.

In seriousness, Palmer does make a fantastic point when it comes to involvement, mutuality, and accountability; a point that Nel Noddings validates in Happiness and Education. She writes, "education for happiness must include education for unhappiness as well" (p. 36, emphasis from the original). Noddings makes the argument that, from the care theory perspective, students must understand both in order to make a happy life because happiness and suffering are always together. Essentially, without understanding what one has to offer, the other only provides a shadow of itself: hollow happiness or sham suffering.

I think she is right. As a rule, adolescents do not know what happiness is because they do not appreciate their unhappiness. Some may, given the family struggles stemming from the recession of recent years. Still others may not have ever felt true suffering and thus cannot understand true happiness. They find their great moment of joy in meaningless pursuits, chasing frivolity after frivolity, making fewer and fewer wise decisions. In essence, they never become "men" and throw away their childish understandings. When I was a child, I understood and reasoned as a child; anyone who spends time with children will tell you that childish understandings and reasoning are cute.

Childish reasoning is cute because it is innocent. They have "faith, hope, and love" in abundance: faith in their families, hope in their developing understanding of the future, and love for just about anything. Just the other day, my son, a fan of the Disney movie Cars, told me, unprompted, that the car he was holding was Lightning McQueen and that he loves him. At first, I was amazed and warmed by the sentiment; then, I felt embarrassed. Suddenly I had scene after scene of me as a child placing inordinate value on toys and video games flashing before my eyes. As a man, I was embarrassed by the things I loved as a child. I mean, who values a video game featuring pixelated Italian plumbers jumping on all sorts of creatures to save a princess. I certainly did; however, there are so many more things in my life that have so much more concrete value.

So, knowing is love. Love is harsh and beautiful, but also patient, kind. I think that is where we, the public school teachers, come in and make our great difference. We live out love and knowing through our faith and hope in our students. We incorporate Noddings's idea of educating for both happiness and suffering when we ask students to read books like Night and articles about modern-day genocides and then ask students what they mean. When not everyone in our AP and Honors classes gets an A, we teach about suffering and the value of hard work. We seek to understand knowing because we love 150+ kids from other peoples' homes unconditionally and we challenge them to love us back every day. That is the difference we make. That is the lesson on happiness we have to offer.

In Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, the title character offers the following about teaching:

"The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness. If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind."

That is what we as English teachers do best. That is what we should encourage all teachers to do best. We don't feed students knowledge like Grape Nuts, telling them they need more fiber so they should suck it up. We pick out a story, we guide them along its meandering pages, and we help them to see the reflection of themselves in the revelatory light of its ending. We are truly "offering something to children that should increase their lifelong happiness...Some things, even in schools, should be offered as gifts - no strings, no tests attached." We do this easily when we remember, as we get up way too early, as we drive hazily to our schools, as we look at our diminishing paychecks, as we feel the crush of more and more students, that we are rising to go to a building, to talk to kids, to teach them about literature, to talk about a book of all things, to help them see the potential for faith, hope, love, and happiness in each of their lives.

As we turn the corner into a new semester, or as we have turned the corner, I hope you'll keep this happiness in mind (it is a long way to Spring Break).

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