Well-being as a philosophy of education.


Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. And then he feels that perhaps there isn’t.[1]

Poor Edward Bear, what a hopeless predicament! To have the solution to a problem so tantalisingly on the tip of awareness and yet to be denied access to it not out of callousness or malice, but out of ignorance. If only Christopher Robin knew of Edward Bear’s proximity to a solution that might bring genuine happiness to them both: and if only he were aware of the effect of his actions on suppressing that solution every time he comes down the stairs.

Many of us involved in teaching, especially at secondary level, feel just like Edward Bear: that the current state of affairs is not quite ideal and that there really is another way of thinking about the educational provision that we are involved in. There is I think a sense for many teachers that education could be different; that it could be about something different. There is also a palpable sense in which many feel prevented from exploring what these possibilities might be because of what could be termed the Christopher Robin effect:  that the seemingly relentless pressures present in contemporary education operate in such a way as to make it very difficult for us to pause to think deeply and differently about what we are doing.

This article is a direct response to these feelings and it has two principal aims. The first aim, to stretch the metaphor, is to provide poor Edward Bear with some hope. I would like to sketch out, with the help of others, a vision of what education could be about so that Edward Bear can believe there really is another way of coming down the stairs.

  1. Bump, bump, bump: the instrumental view of education.

We should have left this sad piece of nonsense [that schooling is centrally about exam success] behind us with the twentieth century. Its schools were caught up in a regime of getting on, doing ever better, getting more and more efficient – but within a system that had lost sight of what it was about…schools should be mainly about equipping people to lead a fulfilling life.[2]

John White.

One of the greatest dystopian visions of education was created by Charles Dickens in his novel Hard Times. Dickens’s character Thomas Gradgrind has created a bleak vision of education that has been reduced to the simplest, most easily repeatable bare bones. Learning consists simply of rote memorisation of fact: in Dickens’ words, like ‘reducing the sea itself into its component drops’. Gradgrind’s philosophy of education is impoverished at best, there is no higher meaning or purpose to learning and no sense of the good to which education may contribute; he simply sees children as ‘little pitchers…to be filled so full of facts.’ The Gradgrind School does not concern itself with human relationships, flourishing or fulfilment and the fullness, mystery, majesty and wonder of human existence does not feature. No thought is given either to what the facts mean in a greater context of understanding existence, or to the relational, pedagogical process through which they come to be learned. Any idea that education might stretch beyond what can be tested and verified – such as a moral education in being human – is entirely and deliberately absent: all that matters is that the facts can be demonstrated to have been learned, nothing more.

Through the tragic lives of the Gradgrind family and the callousness of characters like Bitzer, Dickens makes the point that there can be little or no separation between the project of education in schools and our deepest wishes about what human life should be about. He warns us that factory schools produce graduates who are only partially human and if we reduce education to mechanistic efficiencies – to instrumentalism – then we imperil the power of education to liberate and contribute to fulfilment.

The philosopher Charles Taylor argues in The Ethics of Authenticity, that the instrumentalism Dickens confronts us with presents a major challenge to contemporary Western culture. Life has, he suggests, become narrowed and flattened by an undue emphasis on instrumental reason:

By “instrumental reason” I mean the kind of rationality we draw on when we calculate the most economical application of means to a given end. Maximum efficiency, the best cost-output ratio, is its measure of success…there is also a widespread unease that instrumental reason has enlarged its scope but also threatens to take over our lives. The fear is that things that ought to be determined by other criteria will be decided in terms of efficiency or “cost-benefit” analysis, that the independent ends that ought to be guiding our lives will be eclipsed by the demand to maximise output.[3]

This sentiment is echoed in Martha Nussbaum’s 2011 book Creating Capabilities:

For a long time, economists, policy-makers, and bureaucrats who work on the problems of the world’s poorer nations told people a story that distorted human experience. Their dominant models asserted that the quality of life in a nation was improving when, and only when, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita was increasing. This crude measure gave high marks to countries that contained alarming inequalities, countries in which a large proportion of people were not enjoying the fruits of a nation’s overall economic improvement. Because countries respond to public rankings that affect their international reputation, the crude approach encouraged them to work for economic growth alone, without attending to the living standard of their poorer inhabitants, and without addressing issues such as health and education, which typically do not improve with economic growth.[4]

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of the processes of increasing efficiency and productivity mentioned in these two extracts. The problem comes when we treat these processes as ends in themselves – as intrinsic goods – and lose sight of ‘the independent ends that ought to be guiding our lives’. Increased productivity or efficiency should be considered worthwhile only in so far as they contribute to the emergence of greater goods. For example, in the Fifteenth Century, the de Medici family used the wealth they acquired through productive and efficient commerce to enable humanism and the arts to flourish in Renaissance Florence. The wealth which produced those greater goods was not considered an end in itself but a means to produce works of great beauty, an example of one of those independent ends that ought to guide life. Perhaps the worst aspect of instrumentalism is the way in which it enables the exploitation of fellow human beings to serve non-human ends. The classic example of this is the sweatshop run by a tyrant who values productivity and profit over persons; the bottom line over individual human dignity, value and rights.

We see this means – ends confusion being mirrored in education, where we have seen the slow creep of instrumentalism in recent decades. The laudable aim of raising educational standards in schools led to an emphasis on exam results and league tables by policy makers, schools inspectorates and school leadership to measure school success. The standards agenda, especially in British schools, has led to significant progress, not only in the number of young people leaving schools better qualified (and therefore better able to access further training and opportunities) but also progress in professional standards of teaching. The use of league tables and an emphasis on measuring where schools add value has been a very powerful tool for providing evidence of what schools are doing and how they can improve.[5] However, we are left with the slightly absurd situation that the tool used to indicate educational quality – the means – has now become the utterly inadequate end of education itself. In the same way that Nussbaum describes GDP above, output in terms of exam results has gone up, but at the cost of an ever decreasing interest in how education contributes to greater human goods. In fixating upon the means we lose sight of proper ends, and the means become ends in themselves. This begins the moment we become teachers. For those entering training for the profession now, there is often precious little talk of human goods we aim to achieve through education but instead, the repeatable, observable, quantifiable skills or techniques that can be employed to maximise pupil output in examinations. To quote Peter Abbs, we have gone from Plato to Tesco.[6]

The drive to maximise results, in the absence of a better philosophy, creates consequences that should be unwelcome in schools. There is the now ubiquitous pressure on young people to ‘achieve’ usually without any notions of the wider human goods to which this achievement may contribute. Coupled with micro-management and the language of marginal gains, some children come to believe that their value is determined by what they can produce for the school and they are incessantly hassled to produce it. This exerts a psychological pressure which is too hard for to some of them to bear.[7] In a 2014 editorial for the British Medical Journal, Professor Chris Bonell underscored this point:

Some schools not only neglect students’ health but may actively harm it. A systematic review of all qualitative research in this area suggests that in school systems that focus on narrow academic metrics, such as those in England and the United States, some schools respond by focusing on the more able students, and not engaging other students or recognising their efforts. This is associated with many students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, disengaging from school and instead investing in “anti-school” peer groups and risk behaviours, such as smoking, taking drugs, and violence. Furthermore, research suggests that “teaching to the test,” which commonly occurs in school systems with a narrow focus on attainment, can harm students’ mental health.[8]

As Bonell suggests, performance pressure directs some educational leaders down the dark alleyway of exclusion and neglect. Anecdotal reports of children being excluded in the run up to exams so as not to damage a school’s league table position are not uncommon, nor are stories of schools entering students as private candidates for fear that their anticipated poor results will spoil the school’s brand and market image. This is an utter failing of ethics in any school: to exploit children in this way and treat them as mere means to an end is to fail Kant’s most basic test of morality: that of treating humans as ends in themselves with absolute dignity and worth. We might also question how this breaches a child’s right not only to not be exploited, but also to identify and pursue their own educational goals utterly independent of a school’s desire to publish good results.

This is complicated by the presence of market-like forces in educational provision. In the UK, schools receive funding based on the number of pupils on roll. UK parents exercise choice over which schools they apply to, in the same way that consumers in markets exercise choice. Schools are ‘incentivised’ to increase their funding by making themselves more appealing by improving their educational performance, with schools performing poorly shrinking and closing. This performance is measured almost exclusively in terms of exam results and now, exam results across a narrow band of ‘traditionally academic’ subjects such as Maths, Science, English, a humanity and a language.[9] Predictably, commentators are reporting that funding and resources are being concentrated in those areas of the curriculum that are most valued to the detriment of the creative arts, music and drama which are surely indispensable to a complete education.[10] There is also the demographic impact. Schools with good results attract families into their catchment areas: this leads to an increase in house prices, making it harder for poorer families to move near good schools. The introduction of market-like incentives is causing us to compete over access to a broad curriculum and access to schools themselves. Education is not a resource that we should have to compete over: it is a fundamental human good. Treating results as intrinsic goods, turning children into producers and viewing schools as markets that will thrive like Amazon or fail like Woolworths is the result of an educational myopia that is dehumanising education for many children in just the way Dickens warned us about.


2. Happiness and education

Education is, to use Taylor’s language, one of those ‘things that ought to be determined by other criteria’. We are currently allowing educational provision to be determined by efficiency and maximization of output of exam results and we have lost the sense that education should be seamlessly woven into our vision for human life as a whole; that our aims of education should be coterminous with our aims for a good human life. If we can assume that the aim of human life is happiness (and I think that this is a more or less uncontroversial assumption) then we can conclude that the aim of education ought to coincide with that: however, this demands that we are clear about what we mean by happiness.

Critics are sceptical of selecting happiness as the aim for education because to them it implies that schools should simply focus on whatever makes children feel good. The objection is that true, worthwhile learning is difficult and any system that focuses more on pleasurable emotions and self-esteem would necessarily steer children away from difficulty and the painful emotions associated with it, thereby missing out on all of the growth emerging from struggle. This is linked to a concern that the Twentieth Century witnessed a rise in narcissism and obsession with the self and that to place happiness as the aim of education would be to engage young people in a selfish pursuit that focuses more on individual feelings, rather than the liberation that can come from immersion in learning a challenging discipline.[11] I agree with this objection, however it assumes a particular understanding of happiness called the hedonic view: the belief that happiness consists exclusively in a preponderance of pleasure over pain.

As Kristjan Kristjannson explains, there are three main objections to the hedonic view of happiness.[12] Firstly, we don’t just experience pleasure, we evaluate pleasure: this is what separates us from animals. Kristjannson cites Sissela Bok’s discussion of Robert Nozick’s famous ‘Experience Machine’ thought experiment, in which he asks us if we would be willing to sacrifice normal life for a life floating in a tank where our brain is connected up to a machine which provides a life of pleasure. Should we be willing to do this?:

Nozick’s answer to his question is a resounding “No.” Far more matters to us as human beings, he argues, than what we experience, no matter how pleasant. First of all, we want to do certain things, not just believe we are doing them. Second, “we want to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person. Someone floating in a tank is an indeterminate blob.[13]

The second objection mentioned by Kristjannson, is that people adapt quickly to pleasure: the so-called ‘hedonic treadmill’ which is explored in more depth in Chapter 8. The third objection is that any pleasure ‘however shallow, degraded or addictive’ counts towards happiness: this sort of ‘whatever makes you happy’ approach which gives no moral attention to the means by which happiness is achieved cannot have a place in any school.

An education based on the hedonic view would create confusion about happiness, not just because of the three objections cited above, but because it would create the impression that happiness is a passive, fleeting end state which occurs when certain conditions (such as exam success) are met. Happiness therefore, is somehow always beyond our grasp leaving us like hamsters in a wheel striving to get somewhere we never arrive to. I think that we would be right to object to the adoption of a hedonistic conception of happiness as our aim of education, but that doesn’t mean that we have to throw the happiness baby out with its bathwater.


3. Eudaimonism: another way of coming down the stairs.

There is another way of looking at happiness which may overcome the problems posed by hedonism. It is called the eudaimonist approach and it traces its history through modern proponents such as Julia Annas, Martha Nussbaum and Kristjan Kristjannson, back to its roots in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. In Intelligent Virtue, Julia Annas explains how the eudaimonist approach sees happiness, or eudaimonia, as a richer state than simply the superficial experience of pleasure. In eudaimonism, happiness is an activity; happiness is living well rather than being a state we enjoy as a result of living well. To clarify the concept, Annas makes the crucial distinction between the circumstances of a life on the one hand, and the living of a life on the other. For many, happiness is achieved when our desires are met: when we have enough money, the right car, a certain level of health, a good job, the right exam results and so on. These, for Annas, are the circumstances of a life and it is a mistake to look for happiness in these places:

Happiness is not a matter of the stuff you have, or whether you are beautiful, healthy, powerful or rich. A happy life is not one in which you just have these things – after all, plenty of people have all these things but in no way live happily. A happy life is one in which you deal well with these things that you have – and cope well with illness, poverty, and loss of status, if these things happen to you. Accounts of happiness in this way of thinking are telling us how to live our lives, not urging us either to keep or change the circumstances of our lives.[14] (My italics)

In eudaimonism, happiness is to be found in the living of a life. It is an ongoing activity where we use reason and good judgement to act rightly and in pursuit of the good. Eudaimonia is not in some way passive and separated from the activities that bring it about, rather it is a process as Kristjan Kristjannson points out: ‘eudaimonia is not a mere state (such as health or wealth) but an ongoing activity of rational virtue.’[15] I understand well-being in a similar way i.e. that well-being consists of engaging in those activities that go to make up a life well-lived and I use the words happiness and well-being interchangeably for this reason. In 2008, the UK Government Office for Science published the Foresight Report into well-being and they defined mental well-being as follows:

[Well-being] is a dynamic state in which the individual is able to develop their potential, work productively and creatively, build strong and positive relationships with others, and contribute to their community. It is enhanced when an individual is able to fulfil their personal and social goals and achieve a sense of purpose in society.[16]

This definition overlaps in important ways with Aristotle’s understanding of eudaimonia, where ‘human flourishing consists of the realisation of virtues of thought and character and the fulfilment of other specifically human physical and mental potentialities over a whole course of life.’[17] The eudaimonist account of happiness calls upon us to envisage human life as an ongoing process of developing potential through engaging in certain activities which contribute to our own flourishing and to the flourishing of those around us.

Eudaimonism is based upon the realisation of virtue and it is important that we pause to interrogate what is meant by virtue, because it is axiomatic for what follows in the rest of this book. The word virtue has inherited an unfortunate puritanical baggage and is often taken to simply mean piety or chastity (even though these might be considered virtues in a greater understanding of the term). It is a word that we shy away from using and certainly, it is a word that is absent from much current educational discourse. However, upon discovering what virtue really means, we can see that this absence is a mistake. Virtue is ubiquitous and we use it more than we realise. When I choose to go for a run on a rainy day, I am using virtue. When a teenager chooses homework over Facebook, she is using virtue. When my Mum propagates a plant from a cutting, she uses virtue. When my colleague chooses to empathise with the pupil with late work, he is using virtue. A virtue is the ability to feel and act well in any given situation. Virtue is, to use Annas again:

…a lasting feature of a person, a tendency for a person to be a certain way. It is not merely a lasting feature, however, one that just sits there undisturbed. It is active: to have it is to be disposed to act in certain ways. And it develops through selective response to the circumstances.[18]

Virtues are learned and acquired over the course of a lifetime and they are developed through deliberate practice and education. The virtues we develop go to form our character both of which are works in progress stretching throughout a lifetime:

Virtue is not a once for all achievement but a disposition of our character that is constantly developing as it meets new challenges and enlarges the understanding it involves…As we develop virtue, our understanding of corresponding virtue also develops.[19]

Virtue, or the disposition to act in certain ways, is rather like a skill.[20] This skill is in part the result of reasoning out which human activities will best serve good ends and Aristotle called the ability to identify a good course of action where competing demands are placed upon us phronesis, or practical wisdom. But being virtuous is not just a matter of reasoning and logic; it involves being emotionally skilful also. For Aristotle, a mark of virtue is the way that we feel in response to the circumstances we find ourselves in. With practice, we should be in a position to have ‘feelings at the right times, on the right grounds, towards the right people, for the right motive and in the right way.’[21] Reason and emotion therefore are foundational to living well and virtue for eudaimonists constitutes – in whole or in part – our happiness as human beings.[22] Eudaimonism also provides a response to the accusation that a focus on happiness in education will produce selfish, indivudalistic narcissists. In the eudaimonist, virtue tradition, happiness is inseparable from building relationships and communities, as Alastair MacIntyre explains here:

For what education in the virtues teaches me is that my good as a man is one and the same as the good of the others with whom I am bound up in human community. There is no way of pursuing my good which is necessarily antagonistic to you pursuing yours because the good is neither mine peculiarly nor yours peculiarly – goods are not private property.[23]

There are different domains of virtue. In its 2013 Framework for Character Education in Schools, the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtue at the University of Birmingham outlined 4 areas in which virtue may be developed.[24] Moral Virtue, the domain we are most likely to already be acquainted with, is the family of virtues associated with identifying, choosing and doing the good, based upon sound moral reasoning. Civic Virtue is the family of virtues associated with living well in a community and Performance Virtues are ‘behavioural skills and psychological capacities that – while they can be used for both good and bad ends – enable us to put our character habits into practice’; the so-called meta-cognitive skills examples of which include creativity and resilience. The fourth domain is that of Intellectual Virtue: these are the virtues we draw upon when engaged in intellectual or technical tasks and are normally taught to us by an expert or mentor.


4. The acquisition of virtue.

If schools and teachers accept that the aim of education is the development of virtue, it is obviously important that they appreciate how one goes about acquiring and developing virtue in the first place. Julia Annas likens the acquisition of virtue to the acquisition of complex skill such as piano playing or building.[25] In her account, becoming more skilled in virtue is driven along by two things: the need to learn and the drive to aspire. To develop a skill we need to learn it through experience, practice and in the company of someone who can teach us that skill. This is accompanied by the drive to aspire, which involves the desire to become better at the skill, to acquire it for ourselves and become completely self-directed, all the time refining the skill in the light of new experiences. For Annas, the complexity lies in going beyond the mere aping of the actions of our teacher and in developing articulacy about our skill: being able to understand why we act in particular ways and to be able to give and take reasons for the things that we do. The drive to aspire emphasises our agency and autonomy. In becoming virtuous we see ourselves as learners constantly striving to develop our understanding of how to respond to the circumstances of our lives in the presence of those who have already achieved a level of understanding: this creates in us a sense that we are autonomous agents, piloting the vehicle ourselves. The drive to aspire also requires us to envisage the acquisition of virtue as a life-long process, not a process that is complete, say, at the end of compulsory schooling.

In the online materials for teaching character and virtue, The Jubilee Centre provides a 5 step model for helping children to think about how they might acquire virtue[26]:

  1. Notice: this involves developing a level of awareness that particular situations call for particular virtues, such as recognising another person’s need that we can meet through kindness.
  2. Stop: taking a moment to pause and reflect on what is required of us and to consider how the virtue can be deployed.
  3. Look: observing the emotions in ourselves and others in the situation and considering whether our emotional response is appropriate; for example in a situation where there is injustice, asking ourselves if we are excessively angry and if we can temper our anger to righteous indignation.
  4. Listen: being able to give and take reasons for our actions and getting guidance from others on what might be the right way to act.
  5. Caterpillar: thinking about who we want to become and how our actions will shape our character. A useful image to illustrate this comes from Eric Carle’s The Hungry Caterpillar, where the colours of the food the caterpillar eats are reflected in the wings of the butterfly he becomes.

What matters most, is that the child considers herself a rational, autonomous agent constantly in the process of widening her understanding of how to feel, think and act well, as opposed to being buffeted about by the simple satisfaction of desires or being carried along by the situations she finds herself in. In seeing our lives as the ongoing project of the acquisition of virtue through learning and aspiring, we re-affirm our human essence as learners who constantly desire to understand how to live better.


5. Eudaimonism as a unifying language for schools.

Because eudaimonism shows us that the happy life consists of learning to live well through the realisation of virtue, its importance for helping enrich the educational work of schools cannot be overstated. What else can schools be for other than helping children flourish as human beings by enabling them to acquire the moral, civic, performance and intellectual virtues that comprise good character? Our contemporary fixation with results – in the absence of a better philosophy – falls short of this and even though virtue may be realised through training for exams, there are far more opportunities to make school an apprenticeship in virtue than are currently being exploited. These opportunities are explored in Chapter 2.

Dickens’ caricature of education in the Gradgrind system is so striking because there is no proper philosophy of education to it. There is no explanation of how his schools contribute to the good and because of that, they don’t. Eudaimonism provides what Gradgrind and elements of modern education lack: a unifying language that unites all the endeavours of a school community and orientates them towards the good of human flourishing. This can be illustrated by the example of the territorial disputes that sometimes occur in schools over access to pupil time or limited resources. Suppose, for example, a school has decided to stage a large drama production with a big cast in the run up to the public exam season. The director requires large numbers of pupils to give up considerable time to rehearse at the same time as teachers are desperate for their pupils to revise and prepare for examinations. At the same time, the sports coaches might be trying to field teams in fixtures and finding that they have no time to train their players. Stressful. The stress is exacerbated when each activity is being driven to achieve performance outcomes; the director is under pressure to stage a near-professional production; the sports coaches are expected to secure victories and the teachers and their line-managers are expected to achieve certain percentages of good exam results. The performance demands in this situation are divisive, because the resources available to produce them (namely people and time) are in limited supply and we are forced to compete over them. It’s not just access to limited resources which causes the tension. When we pit people against each other in order to drive up standards, often by placing them in rank order of performance, we pitch them into a battle of egos and involve the powerful emotions of shame and pride.

This example illustrates either a lack of a unifying language (i.e. a philosophy of education) or, the use of a unifying language that turns out to be bogus. The language of performance outcomes purports to unify in theory, because all are expected to contribute to success and all enjoy its fruits when it comes, but in practice it divides because its use of competition sets those of us who are actually united in a common educational purpose against each other. Annas writes about three features of eudaimonism which seem to address this issue of unifying languages in educational communities: the structured way of thinking about life; nested goals; and the unifying tendency.

Much of what takes place between students and teachers in schools involves the one making a request of the other to behave in a particular way. This generally revolves around teachers requesting students to engage in activities that will enable them to learn and at the more tertiary stages of education, succeed in obtaining qualifications. If we are uncritically engaged in making this happen i.e., if we simply make students learn without asking why, we are taking what Annas calls a linear approach to thinking about life. If on the other hand, we pause to reflect upon our intentions as teachers and also ask the students to reflect on their intentions as learners and ask why we are doing this, we are taking what she calls the structured approach to thinking about life.

As soon as we take this structured approach and step back to examine why we do what we do, we identify our goals. Annas explains that our goals have a particular nature: they are nested, rather like sets of tables which fit inside one another. Why do I teach the mind body problem to my philosophy students? Because it will make them better philosophers and it forms part of the exam. Why do I want these two outcomes for them? Because philosophy helps us to understand human existence and passing the exam opens the door for further opportunities. Why do I want these two outcomes? Because hopefully they will eventually lead to my students’ fulfilment, flourishing and happiness. Annas suggests that upon examining my goals, I realise that they are nested – they fit together coherently – and are unified towards some common purpose or telos, even if this telos is not fully obvious to us at every given moment, as she explains here:

This thinking is unifying about the goals because they are all my goals, and I need to have an integrated and unifying way of achieving them because I have only one life, the life I am living. What is activated is not thinking in the abstract about types of goal and how they could fit together, but thinking about how I can achieve the goals I have in the life I have. It is thinking about my life and how it is going. It is practical thinking, thinking about my life and how I should structure it. Thus the original everyday thinking about the way I do one thing I do is for the sake of another thing I do leads seamlessly into thinking about my life as a whole in a structured way.[27]

Eudaimonism provides a unifying language for school communities, because it makes clear that we are all engaged in the realisation of virtue. In any community there is a huge diversity of personal and organisational goals, but all of them can come to be seen as nested within each other and unified towards the common purpose of eudaimonia. Because our vision for education is so often truncated by the concern to achieve results, we are left with a performance obsession that may divide and pit us against one another. In creating an educational community oriented towards the common goal of virtue, character and flourishing, obsessions with performance can be swallowed up and transformed by the much bigger concern of producing good human beings. Not just this, but our work as educators becomes much more intricately woven into the lives of our pupils as a whole: I cease to be just a teacher of a subject and instead use my subject knowledge as a vehicle for contributing to the much bigger project of helping people to live the good life. I’m not so idealistic as to believe that eudaimonism will put an end to competing demands over limited resources in schools, but it does provide us with a framework that can reconcile these conflicts through an understanding of the greater project of contributing to human becoming.


6. Which virtues?

It would be tempting, if we accept that the acquisition of virtues across a range of domains is the aim of education, to create a list of the virtues that schools ought to promote and perhaps to even set up assessment frameworks to quantify the acquisition of these virtues. I think that this ought to be resisted and I have a number of reasons for saying so. Firstly, by its nature, any list of virtues will be exclusive and in the context of a community like a school, if certain virtues are excluded from the list, this may in turn lead to certain individuals feeling excluded because a virtue which they prize and which is integral to their identity does not appear. Secondly, in seeking to generate a list of virtues, communities may find themselves embroiled in debates that are sideshows; for example, how many virtues to have, how to properly define and distinguish them from each other and which virtues best represent the character of the institutions. In getting bogged down in issues such as these, we lose sight of the idea that all virtues are excellences which may contribute to the good human life. Thirdly, in creating a list of virtues, there is an inherent danger of prescribing and creating a one-size-fits-all vision of human life which doesn’t match reality. As both Alastair MacIntyre[28] and Julia Annas make clear, the circumstances of our lives vary within communities, across cultures and throughout history. What matters most, given the variance of human experience, is not a full understanding of every virtue, but the practical wisdom and judgement – phronesis – to decide which virtue(s) to deploy at any given time and how to deploy them, as Annas explains:

There is no such thing as being virtuous in a way which will be appropriate to all kinds of lives, or one ideal balance of virtues such as courage or patience that could be got right once and for all for everybody. Virtue is not the kind of thing that can be specified in advance so as to be one size that fits all, precisely because practical intelligence gets things right in very diverse circumstances…Each of us needs to do different work to integrate the virtues we need to deal with the circumstances of our life as we aim to live well.[29]

Instead of a tick-box list of virtues which can gradually be ticked off – or worse still, graded – as they are learned and practised, we should instead think of school-based character education as a framework, guided by practical wisdom, which will enable young people to acquire virtues as they encounter the myriad challenges of being learners in communities. The virtue profiles of each individual and each learning community will shift and change as the tides of life experience come in and out.

Let’s draw these threads together. The eudaimonic view of life is one which sees happiness being reached not through the acquisition of certain life circumstances, but through the development of certain skills of living well, namely, the virtues. A eudaimonic approach to education, therefore, would argue that education is an activity that produces happiness through teaching and practice of the virtues. According to this view, schools and teachers are concerned with enabling pupils to acquire and develop virtues across the 4 domains: moral, civic, performance and intellectual. Not only this, but if we agree with Annas’ account of eudaimonism and agree that it can work as a vision for education, all education should involve a structured (i.e. reflective) way of thinking about life which reveals nested goals that lead to a unifying view of education: namely that everything we do in educational settings should be about the acquisition of the virtues and development of a character that will maximise the chances of living a happy, fulfilled and flourishing life.


7. Other approaches to well-being, happiness and eudaimonia

Additional support for a eudaimonist account of education comes from John White’s 2011 book Exploring Well-being in Schools. As we saw in the quotation above, White is unambiguous that school should be about much more than the mere acquisition of exam results and qualifications. White clarifies his position that well-being should be the aim of education later by defining it as follows:

Education for well-being involves preparing children for a life of autonomous, whole-hearted and successful engagement in worthwhile activities and relationships.[30]

For White, examining schools through the lens of well-being forces us to expand and re-order our vision for education. He argues that the mistake we have made – especially in secondary education – is to begin with a list of subjects we would like children to master and to then graft the aims of education and the types of dispositions and personal qualities we would like children to acquire onto those subjects, with the inevitable consequence that subjects take primacy and aims and dispositions become obscured. Instead, White suggests, we should begin with a clear aim for schools – in his view, well-being – then identify the dispositions that would support well-being and set the curriculum on those pillars. By ‘dispositions’ and ‘personal qualities’ I take White to mean virtue and character, which can be seen here:

What should exercise us initially is not that the child becomes proficient in French, or knows about the atomic structure of matter, or be able to solve algebraic equations. These things may or may not be important in her education, but if they are they come into view at a different place. The starting point is that she should have the positive qualities needed for a flourishing life. We would not want her to become brilliant at algebra and Latin, but also cripplingly anxious, or cynical, or a sadist. First things first.[31]

White is not advocating the scrapping of the subjects, – although his view does demand a radical re-think of how they might be delivered – nor is he suggesting the stripping out of subject content and knowledge: he is arguing that education as well-being requires us to re-order our priorities in a way which immediately makes complete sense of them. In teaching an academic discipline of course I want my students to acquire the intellectual virtues which accompany its mastery and I’d like them to do well enough to access the next round of opportunities, but those skills and that success can only take them so far. How tragic it would be for my students to emerge, like Bitzer or the Gradgrind children above, proficient in curricular skill but devoid of the moral, civic and performance virtues that ultimately lead to a life well-lived. Eudaimonism demands that schools go beyond helping their students to pass exams and expand their concern to the living of a life across the different domains of virtue: to abdicate this duty is to fail our students.

Of course, the counter-argument to this position is that if schools could only get the business of the academic curriculum right, we would enable students to become happy through the discovery of the joy of learning. In his book What’s the Point of School?, Guy Claxton argues that if schools were better able to help children to learn and engage with the process of learning in the first place, then education would make children happier:

Happiness is better seen as a by-product of having done something challenging and worthwhile. Happiness is a mixture of pride, satisfaction and the sense of effectiveness and value that arises when we have stretched ourselves to achieve something we care about. In other words, happiness is the fruit of worthwhile learning. In my view, too much stress and unhappiness in young people’s lives comes from the fact that they do not know how to learn, nor what it is that they want to learn about. If we can help them to discover the things they most passionately want to get better at, and to develop the confidence and capability to pursue those passions, then I think more happiness and less stress will be the result.[32]

As it stands, Claxton argues, current educational provision, especially in the UK, leaves many school leavers stressed and anxious with its focus on testing and accumulating qualifications. For him, modern education does not connect children to the fundamental joys of learning and has missed the opportunity to use the school years as what he calls an ‘epistemic apprenticeship’, where children learn to become learners, a point alluded to by John Holt in How Children Fail:

We are by nature question-asking, answer-making, problem-solving animals, and we are extremely good at it, above all when we are little. But under certain conditions, which may exist anywhere and certainly exist almost all of the time in almost all schools, we stop using our greatest intellectual powers, stop wanting to use them, even stop believing that we have them.[33]

Too often, Claxton argues, children spend time learning about learning and accumulating an ineffective language of learning, rather than actually learning to learn. Schools have been hamstrung by accountability and are afraid of allowing children to take risks as learners, to explore real-life, meaningful and challenging material without the close teacher control that arises when a certain percentage of A*-C grades has to be achieved. Claxton’s solution is an approach called ‘Building Learning Power’, or ‘The Learning Gymnasium’, where children spend time developing their ‘learning muscles’ (i.e. learning how to learn) and discovering that they delight in learning. In Claxton’s view an education system with the child and her learning at its centre would lead to children who experience happiness through the activity of learning.

However, Claxton stops short of advocating a specific focus on the teaching of happiness and well-being. For him, lessons of this sort, which have only operated at a superficial level in the past, would become superfluous if the formal curriculum was delivered properly, as is also argued by Judith Suissa in her article Lessons from a new science? On teaching happiness in schools.[34] As you might expect, given what follows for the remainder of the book, I disagree with this position. I am convinced by Claxton that a properly delivered academic curriculum will no doubt result in increased levels of happiness and well-being, but it is my view that this curriculum would be augmented by the direct and deliberate teaching of happiness which focuses on the acquisition of virtues: in short, on learning how to live well. It is for this reason that I distinguish between ‘education as happiness’ and ‘educating for happiness’, where the former represents the view that Claxton holds and the latter represents the view that discrete time must be given over in schools to the kind of education I describe in the remainder of this book.


7. Care in education.

In placing well-being as the central aim of education we are also implicitly endorsing the language of caring. Care is a non-judgemental attitude which extends in a number of directions: self, others, our environment and so on. Care is predicated on empathy, the ability to feel as others feel and take on their perspective and it emphasizes the importance of friendships and relationships. Care ethics emerged in large part as a response to a narrowing of ethics to focus either on rules and duty, or on maximising good consequences and utility. Proponents of care ethics have argued that whilst rules and consideration of consequences may be useful in ethics, they can only take us so far. Ethics has good human relationships and flourishing as its central concern, so to subordinate the relational to the upholding of rules or the maximisation of utility is to subvert the whole enterprise of ethics. Much of the work done in care ethics has been applied to medicine where many feel that the drive for the meeting of targets has come at a cost to the relationships that lie at the heart of patient care. The same may be equally true of education and of educational systems. If we devote too much of our energy to either the upholding of rules or the meeting of targets in abstraction from the human goods they serve, we imperil the very context in which meaningful learning takes place: the relationships that exist between pupils and teachers and between pupils and pupils.

Again, we should be wary of creating a false dichotomy between care on one hand and results on the other. Results are simply a measure of excellence and to focus too closely on results may be to lose sight of what it actually is that produces them: care and concern for excellence and the virtues which produce it. If we are committed to caring for those in our communities and also to the excellence of the practices we are attempting to develop – Maths, flute playing, friendship  – we are committed to the acquisition of the virtues which make the excellence of those practices possible. What matters is the question of what takes primacy and what can be used to serve those primary aims. The development of virtue assumes that my role as teacher is based upon an attitude of care for my pupils and the excellences they are developing. For my pupils, it assumes that they will adopt an attitude of care towards themselves and their learning and towards others. With that foundation in place, we might then look to establish certain rules and targets that will serve an attitude of care and the development of virtue rather than existing as ends in themselves.

For Martin Heidegger, care was central to his understanding of the meaning of our existence as humans. The following comes from his Letter on Humanism:

Where else does “care” tend but in the direction of bringing man back to his essence? What else does that in turn betoken but that man (homo) become human (humanus)? Thus humanitas really does mean the concern of such thinking. For this is humanism: meditating and caring, that man be human and not inhumane, “inhuman” that is, outside his essence. But in what does the humanity of man consist? It lies in his essence.[35]

Heidegger understood care as a form of paying attention to everything in my existence that enables me to live fully; my relationships, my projects, the familiar objects of my life and so on. He also emphasised the interrelatedness and interconnectedness of everything. The notion that there is a gap between where I end and the world begins is a mistaken one; my world is not fragmented and atomised, it is unified into webs of meaning by human beings. We see a similar emphasis in the writings of Aristotle and in the modern work of Julia Annas both of whom tell us that compassion and community are central to a life well-lived. By engaging in learning to live well or teaching others how to do so, we show care and concern in Heidegger’s rich sense of care as bringing man back to his essence.

Iain McGilchrist picks up on Heidegger’s concept of care in his remarkable book The Master and his Emissary, which has as its principal interest the differences in function between the left and right hemispheres of the human brain and the impact that this difference has had on Western cultural history. For McGilchrist, a significant problem in contemporary culture is the predominance of a left hemisphere view of the world which makes it much more difficult for care to take centre stage in human life. Care is a defining feature of the right hemisphere:

…belief in terms of the right hemisphere is different, because its disposition towards the world is different. The right hemisphere does not ‘know’ anything, in the sense of certain knowledge. For it, belief is a matter of care: it describes a relationship, where there is a calling and an answering, the root concept of ‘responsibility’. Thus if I say that ‘I believe in you’, it does not mean that I think that such-and-such things are the case about you, but can’t be certain that I am right. It means that I stand in a certain sort of relation of care towards you, that entails me in certain ways of behaving (acting and being) towards you, and entails on you the responsibility of certain ways of acting and being as well…It has the characteristic right hemisphere qualities of being a betweenness: a reverberative, ‘re-sonant’, ‘respons-ible’ relationship in which each party is altered by the other and by the relationship between the two.[36]

The implications for education could not be more obvious, but to hammer the point home, let’s see McGilchrist’s presentation of what a predominantly left hemisphere view of the world would look like:

We could expect, for a start, that there would be a loss of the broader picture, and a substitution of a more narrowly focussed, restricted, but detailed, view of the world, making it perhaps difficult to maintain a coherent overview. The broader picture would in any case be disregarded, because it would lack the appearance of clarity and certainty which the left hemisphere craves…The concepts of skill and judgment, once considered the summit of human achievement, but which come only slowly and silently with the business of living, would be discarded in favour of quantifiable and repeatable processes…more and more work would come to be overtaken by the meta-processes of documenting or justifying what one was doing or supposed to be doing – at the expense of the real job in the living world.[37]

Because the left hemisphere plays the important role of breaking things down into constituent parts and grasping them, it has a tendency towards atomisation and control. This ability is of enormous importance in dealing with complex and inanimate objects or processes, but it falls short of humanity unless it is reintegrated and transformed by the right hemisphere and its understanding of persons, care, interconnectedness, metaphor, uncertainty, emotion, intuition and feeling. A eudaimonic, caring account of education is one which can sublimate helping children to achieve into the primary purpose of enabling them to lead a fulfilling life in which virtues have been developed.

Paulo Freire echoes these sentiments in his description of the ‘banking’ metaphor of education. He describes the ‘narration sickness’ of didactic systems of educating which consist simply of students who receive, file and store deposits of knowledge bestowed upon them by their teacher. Freire’s description of this model has much in common with McGilchrist’s presentation of the left hemisphere view of the world, as Freire explains here:

The banking concept of education, which serves the interests of oppression, is also necrophilic. Based on a mechanistic, static, naturalistic, spatialized view of consciousness, it transforms students into receiving objects. It attempts to control thinking and action, leads men to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power.[38]

Freire’s solution is what he terms problem-posing education. The key feature of this approach is that the illusory division between teacher and pupil disappears and through dialogue a new relationship appears: the teacher-student and the student-teacher, in McGilchrist’s language a ‘relationship in which each party is altered by the other and by the relationship between the two.’ For Freire, education properly conducted is humanism. Education liberates us and enables us to become fully human, but only if it is done on the understanding that all of us involved in it are incomplete and unfinished beings who exist as part of an incomplete and unfinished reality.

This sense of being works in progress returns us to Aristotle and to eudaimonism. The process of the development of virtue is predicated upon a view of ourselves as works in progress, right up until the moment of our death. It also requires us to exist in relation with others who enable us to develop virtue and who in turn are engaged in their own process of developing virtue. All of this, especially the existential uncertainty of it all, demands of us that we exist in a relationship of care to one another and it is this care which underpins our humanity.



In a blog post for the Times Educational Supplement, teacher Tom Bennett recounts a conversation with a friend who describes his reasons for leaving the teaching profession:

“Accountability and data,” he said. “I came into this job because I love teaching children; because I see them as people who need the best start in life we can give them. They’re all sons and daughters, and they’re in my room because I’m supposed to help them learn and understand. And now they aren’t children. They’re units. The school sees each examinable cohort as a set of targets; the ones who look like they’ll meet that target get ignored, and the ones who might get all the attention. And the ones who probably won’t get their levels and C grades…the ones who need us most…get the scrapheap.”[39]

Bennett then comments: ‘I assured him that there were plenty of schools out there that didn’t see children as dots on a scatter graph; that still believed in education for its own sake and to Hell with the child-catchers of bureaucracy. I just don’t know how many.’

In this article I have attempted to reassure Edward Bear that there really is another way of coming down the stairs; a way of thinking about education which might enable us to sublimate the corrosive obsession with achievement into something humanistic and more meaningful. It may be argued that in doing so I have created a straw man of results-obsessed schools and that in reality, school leaders are already combining the achievement of results with a holistic vision for education. This may well be true, but I would suggest that we should be wary of marketing hyperbole and intellectual sleight of hand. Schools may indeed make much of their efforts to teach to the whole child but I worry that too often this is a façade and that in practice, all school activities are subordinated to the acquisition of results.

This sleight of hand may also extend to the introduction of a well-being ethos. Schools are not oblivious to the stresses involved in accomplishing difficult academic feats and many introduce well-being measures to mitigate against the effects of academic pressure. In doing so however, they are getting the tail to wag the dog and falling foul of the trap of confusing means and ends. Such an approach signals to young people that achievement is the end and that self-care only matters in so far as it supports achievement. This is nonsense and it is harmful to the long term welfare of pupils because it promotes the idea that humans are only valuable for what they produce, not for how well they live. It also undermines the concept of well-being and suggests that it is something that is only important when we are under pressure, rather than being a continuous process of mastering the art of living a good human life. A eudaimonic account of education demands of us that we think of educating for happiness and education as happiness: that we both explicitly teach how to live well and that our entire educational efforts are aimed primarily at the achievement of happiness and human flourishing.

In my view, a eudaimonic account of education and a retrieval of the language of virtue, character and care can play the role of reassuring Edward Bear. In concerning ourselves with results, our attention is narrowed to what pupils produce; in concerning ourselves with well-being our attention is widened to who our pupils – and colleagues – are becoming and how their academic and other accomplishments contribute to that. We see each individual as a work in progress and take care over our involvement in their development of virtue and character across those four different domains: moral, civic, performance and intellectual. The eudaimonic account may also help to overcome the fragmentation that occurs in schools where performance tables introduce competition between people who, in reality, are all pulling in the same direction. In that sense, eudaimonism may well be the unifying language that education is calling for.

[1] A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-pooh and some bees, page 3

[2] White, J. Exploring Well-being in Schools, page 1.

[3] Taylor, C. The ethics of authenticity, page 5.

[4] Nussbaum, M, Creating Capabilities, page ix.

[5] cf. Visible Learning by John Hattie, a thorough review of current research into what works in increasing learning (e.g. effective feedback on pupil learning) and what doesn’t (e.g. ability setting).

[6] Taken from a speech given at King Alfred School, London, November 2007.

[7] This is well-documented. For example, see the article entitled More children treated for anxiety because of exam pressure in The Daily Telegraph of 26th September 2013.

[8] Chris Bonell et al, BMJ 2014;348:g3078, published 13th May 2014.

[9] https://www.gov.uk/english-baccalaureate-information-for-schools accessed on 23rd December 2014.

[10] For example, on arts: https://news.tes.co.uk/b/news/2014/07/03/arts-lessons-cut-as-schools-focus-on-english-and-maths.aspx accessed 23rd December 2014 and on music: https://news.tes.co.uk/b/opinion/2014/09/30/39-dear-nicky-morgan-it-39-s-time-to-stop-viewing-arts-and-music-as-second-class-subjects-39.aspx accessed 23rd December 2014.

[11] C.f. Ecclestone, K. and Hayes, D., The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education.

[12] Kristjannson, K., op cit, page 36.

[13] Bok, S., Exploring Happiness, pages 25-26.

[14] Annas, J. Intelligent Virtue, page 129

[15] Kristjannson K, op cit, page 43.

[16] Government Office for Science, Foresight Report into Mental Capital and Well-being, page 45.

[17] Kristjannson K, op cit, page 29.

[18] Ibid pp 8-9

[19] Annas, J, ibid page 38.

[20] This skill analogy is developed fully by Annas in Intelligent Virtue.

[21] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, page 41.

[22] Annas, J, ibid page 1.

[23] MacIntyre, A., After Virtue, page 213.

[24] http://jubileecentre.ac.uk/userfiles/jubileecentre/pdf/other-centre-papers/Framework..pdf accessed on September 9th 2014.

[25] Chapter 3 of Intelligent Virtue provides an in-depth discussion of how virtue is acquired.

[26] http://jubileecentre.ac.uk/531/programme-of-study/taught-course-resources accessed on 18th December 2014.

[27] Annas, J. ibid, pages 122 – 123.

[28] Cf. MacIntyre, A., After Virtue, chapter 15.

[29] Annas, J., ibid, page 95.

[30] Ibid page 129.

[31] Ibid page 131.

[32] Claxton, G. What’s the point of school? Pages 193-194.

[33] Holt, J. How Children Fail, page 189.

[34] Suissa, J, Lessons from a new science? On teaching happiness in schools, in New Philosophies of Learning, Cigman and Davis (Eds) pp 205 – 220.

[35] Heidegger, M, Letter on humanism, in Heidegger Basic Writings, page 152.

[36] McGilchrist, I, The Master and his Emissary, page 170.

[37] Ibid pages 428 – 429.

[38] Freire, P., Banking V Problem-solving Models of Education, in Curren R. (ed), Philosophy of Education an Anthology page 71.

[39] http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storyCode=6301598 accessed on September 23rd 2014.