The hyper-commodification of the college degree has led to a cheapening of many classroom experiences. This is the product of the American and global marketplace with all its nefarious influences and ever-shifting trends. What is being lost in the constant appeal to progress and relevancy is that colleges and universities undertake innovations that don’t equate to making better education experiences, nor do they make better teachers sharpened by their pedagogical craft. Instead, as several commentators have rightfully identified, educators fall prey to the campus innovation myth. The desire to respond to the deepening sense that many colleges have lost their relevance is not the issue; rather, it’s that innovation does not equate to making students trendsetters and changemakers. Innovation does not fulfill the primary purpose of education: to improve the quality of each student’s life. In many ways, appeals to innovation can get in the way of the purpose of education.
Many students view human flourishing through the lens of entertainment culture rather than seeking the wellspring of ancient meditations on the source of happiness. It’s not that the ancients hold the secret to greater wisdom but that the perennial search for the meaning of life increasingly falls beyond the shores of the modern classroom. More and more, the mere concept of happiness is clouded by the consumption of television, movies, social media, games, or various forms of contemporary art. These may indeed offer greater currency for students, but at the same time the reason remains a concern if we concur with new media prophet Neil Postman, who in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) addresses educators in a way that profoundly forecasts current conditions: “Happiness does not lie in amusement; it would be strange if one were to take trouble and suffer hardship all one’s life in order to amuse oneself” (89). Nor should we try to simply amuse our students for the sake of wooing them into learning. While, admittedly, not all educators fall into this trap directly, we need to shift our classroom paradigm from one that is tempted by the allure of amusement and pandering for relevancy to one which makes fueling students’ search for happiness its primary goal.
The Purpose of Education
If we were to follow the demarcation set by the majority of students, the university would more often than not become merely a means to get a good job. Education would not, in the very least, be an integral part of the process of learning to live the good life. The pursuit of better jobs and more money has long been the trend, and educators necessarily play an instrumental role in prolonging (or reversing) how students view the genuine value of their education. With the increasing demand for applicants in various vocations to obtain a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree, many practically-minded students allow their diploma to serve as a symbol of what they perceive as a token equaling higher salary or privileged social standing. For better or worse, a college degree has become a required ticket before one can enter certain sectors of the job market.
This awareness is even more true for first-generation students. Their degrees may be the only coin in the realm for many students. There may be no other recourse for their social mobility. For this reason, we must not downplay the importance of the degree, but rather acknowledge that while a salary guarantees equal opportunity in the pursuit of happiness it is not equal to or greater than happiness.
If life inherently involves the pursuit of happiness, education should prepare students to face that overall challenge. This may mean simply sparking a genuine search for happiness, or its ancillary concerns related to purpose, meaning, and truth in one’s life. Helping students get their dream job can contribute to this improvement, and making the material entertaining along the way certainly can help facilitate learning, but these things should never be the ultimate goal of the classroom. For instance, I have taught several film courses. However, the films that I have shown are never selected merely to entertain, and the movies are not simply shown because they are relevant. It’s not even technique that we study most in films. Rather, we study films in order to gather larger truths about the art form that comment in some fashion on the nature of happiness. For instance, a class I taught on David Lynch as film auteur introduced students to both the masterpieces and the total failures of Lynch. We explored the nature of how an auteur’s happiness is intimately connected with their art form. Biographical and autobiographical texts on Lynch were put in conversation with his films. This provided a revealing look into how a lack of happiness tends to leave its signature on the artistic product. Auteur theory led the class to an awareness that a person’s happiness, or lack of happiness, has a direct impact on their work. Students were encouraged to make similar connections; their own personal happiness, or lack thereof, affects their own productions in the classroom and in life more generally.
We as educators need to ask ourselves how our classes make a larger contribution to the genuine personal happiness of each individual student — not just the daily amusement of the student or fulfilling the requirements needed for a future job. Appeals to our collective democracy, civic participation, or any number of the benefits that a more educated cadre of citizens might create should be recast in light of the principle philosophic quest: the search for greater happiness. What if our classrooms took a cue from our own constitutional right to search for happiness, or even the Constitution of Bhutan (enacted in July of 2008) that aims to measure the success of their nation not by “Gross Domestic Product” (GDP), but “Gross Domestic Happiness” (GDH)? Their happiness “index” presents a means to rethink existence in terms of happiness and not mere economic wealth. I am proposing a similar iteration for the college classroom where the central philosophical question concerning happiness sits at the center — not dissimilar from the classical liberal arts tradition.
Telos is a concept that refers to a purpose, goal, or final end. Aristotle suggested that “If we want to understand what something is, it must be understood in terms of that end,” and this includes our life. Just as a knife is made to cut, a nail to strike, and a book to read, human beings have a telos that Aristotle identifies as happiness. While not all agree with his premise, Aristotle’s claim did succeed in becoming one of the primary inquiries informing ancient philosophy, leading frequently to fundamental questions such as: What is happiness? What is the full extent of true human success? What is the goal of life? What makes a life worth living? These questions pertaining to the realization of happiness are vital for their own sake, and yet they often remain outside the classroom. What if these probing questions are the antidote to so many divided views of education? If happiness is not to be considered the complete and perfect good, what is the telos of your classroom? What is the telos of education?
Clarifying Educational Goals
There are perhaps many equally noble aims. I do not mean to discredit them here. If nothing else, I would like to see these considerations tethered to the purpose of education. Happiness remains crucial for teachers as much as students — many who rightfully may wonder what reading literature or studying chemistry has to do with the nature of human happiness. These are good questions to ask students. If we are not considering these kinds of questions as educators, then students definitely are not. Maybe we should examine and articulate what is more important than encouraging genuine human flourishing, lest hard questions and open-ended inquiries fall by the wayside.
If the pursuit of happiness resides at the heart of education — remaining at the beginning, middle, and end of the pursuit — then more students might be invested in the experience itself rather than the end result (i.e. getting a good job). What does this practically look like in the classroom? How can educators foster earnest joy? Here’s a general framework that I developed in a way that might resonate with multiple disciplinary outlooks:
In the Arts, the keyword is creativity. As previously mentioned, entertainment does not lead to happiness, but the fact is that many students tend to conflate these two experiences. The arts can be used to reveal how craft and process open students to an experience of happiness. This includes the craft of giving a good speech or writing brilliant plays. Merely exposing the state of flow that often accompanies the creative act can potentially change a student’s direction in life. Flow can shift a student’s perspective beyond the distraction of grades; it can allow learning to be a process that is experienced and enjoyed rather than a means to an end.
In the Humanities, the keyword is conversation. Whether students are assigned philosophical or historical or literary texts directly addressing the human condition various definitions of happiness can be established. Through the rhetorical art of defining happiness, a conversation is sought in the classroom. An organic conversation can expose various stripes of happiness, including variances between teacher and student, or student and student. Without having these kinds of vulnerable conversations, where presuppositions are laid bare, it’s difficult if not impossible to imagine educators truly promoting human flourishing.
In Social Sciences, the keyword is community. By engaging the community through projects that explore various experiences of happiness in such places as prisons, retirement homes, or homeless shelters, students intrinsically throw into relief their own happiness-skills. Such community engaged research and learning gets us beyond the traditional classroom. Projects that design any form of community-engaged learning allow the experience of education to itself embody the collective pursuit of happiness.
In the Sciences, the keyword is collection. When we sort and analyze, we learn to see how our perception of our environment contributes to our well-being. Whether investigating environmentalism or neuroscientific data, students are given the opportunity to speak into facts in a way that keeps them critically engaged with the world around them. Such awareness cannot be divorced from the greater good.
The pursuit of happiness is a declaration as foundational as the United States’ founding fathers imagined. More transcendent than national impulses, the pursuit of happiness should not be absent from the classroom lest liberty, creative control, and trust erode; as John Dewey remarked, the classroom is the space where such desires are ignited: “To find out what one is fitted to do, and to secure an opportunity to do it, is the key to happiness.”
More than an individualistic desire, the utilitarian nature of this pursuit is perhaps best expressed by J. Gresham Machen in Christianity and Liberalism, “The object of education, it is now assumed, is the production of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But the greatest happiness for the greatest number, it is assumed further, can be defined only by the will of the majority.” Today, that will is often located in the promulgation of entertainment culture. While expressing his skepticism of the secular emphasis of education, Machen concludes, “The dominant tendency, even in a country like America, which formerly prided itself on its freedom from bureaucratic regulation of the details of life, is toward a drab utilitarianism in which all higher aspirations are to be lost” (10). All this is to say that many educators have internalized an unquestioned commitment to the needs of the majority, even when this appeal to democracy produces results to the alternative (i.e. where students are actually alienated from decision-making, stripped of their humanity and pushed through the system). A radical alternative might be to genuinely shine a light on happiness. More than a symbolic evocation, if genuinely pursued in the classroom happiness can reshape the relationship between student and teacher. Happiness can bring light to previously dark classroom spaces.
While the general approach I am advocating for can be vocalized through various disciplinary and interdisciplinary forms of inquisition and reasoning, Parker Palmer wonderfully compliments this understanding in his urge to get us thinking about how “good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher” (88). Starting from who we are as teachers and who students are as human beings should take precedence over encouraging conformable and isolated skills, traits, or cultivable strengths. It should take precedence over trends, fads, and waves of entertaining impulses. One way to retain such an understanding is shifting our focus to questions of how the pursuit of happiness can enrich the educational encounter.