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And Are They Happy?

Posted: 2006-07-07

This reflection was provoked by a short item in The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 30, 2006), in which David Glenn notes that Economists at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor have created what might become the first large-scale, long-term index of American happiness.


Since the 1940s the university's monthly 500-person survey of consumer optimism has asked such questions as, "Do you think now is a good or bad time to buy major household items?" Beginning last August, that survey has also included a short battery of questions about happiness, or the lack thereof.

The new questions are the brainchild of Miles S. Kimball, a professor of economics at Michigan who meditates for half an hour each morning to increase his own happiness. He hopes that accumulating high-quality data about happiness over time will shed light on people's actual desires and preferences.

What would happen if we asked schoolchildren: Are you happy? Asked the question and then shut up and listened to the answers.

Teachers could end every school day with the question, "Was today a good day for you? What added to (or took away from) your happiness?" Maybe students could jot down answers in journals, giving the teacher the time to study them later.

Why not start out each day with this suggestion, "Think of one thing that could increase the possibility for this being a good day for all of us."

Surely, schools can afford to devote a few minutes each day to happiness--instead of operating on the principle articulated by the Athenian lawmaker Solon: "Count no man happy until he is dead."

The Eighteenth Century political theorist Jeremy Bentham put forth the Greatest Happiness principle, declaring that the best society is the one where the citizens are happiest. All citizens. This means that the right moral action is that which produces the most happiness for the people. As Richard Layard, a world expert on unemployment and inequality, points out in Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, this noble ideal, which has driven much of the social progress that has occurred in the last two hundred years, comes close in spirit to the opening passages of our Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Layard is quick to point out that when the Greatest Happiness principle degenerates into the "non-philosophy of rampant individualism," happiness does not result. If we really want to be happy, we need some concept of a common good, towards which we all contribute. Jeremy Bentham's Enlightenment ideal defines the common good as the greatest happiness of all, requiring us to care for others we well as for ourselves.

In 1972, the king of Bhutan declared that his small Himalayan country (which is the size of Switzerland) would henceforth measure progress with gross national happiness instead of gross national product.

With our present hysteria over test scores, I wonder if any school board in the land would have the nerve to declare that a school is as good as its students' Happiness Index. Declare it and then work to raise the level of happiness. After all, as I pointed out in What Schools Need is a Happiness Index, even McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken are trying to figure out if their cows and chickens are happy. This offers schools a radically different corporate model to consider than the standard Business Roundtable neutron Jack approach. McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken are sponsoring research to find out answers to such questions as Are cows ever happy? Do pigs feel pain? What do chickens really want?

Can our schools do less?

Jeremy Bentham declared that a law is good if it incrases the happiness of the citizens and decreases their misery; if it does not, it is bad.

Put aside, for the moment, the question of whether McDonald's and KFC are being somewhat disingenuous. Just consider the new territory they are entering: asking scientific questions about an animal's feelings. That's worth repeating: asking scientific questions about an animal's feelings.

Next, consider how far schools have been driven from this territory. The fact that it is inconceivable to imagine the current U. S. Department of Education sponsoring research to find out answers to such questions as
  • Do kindergartners feel pain?

  • Are 5th graders ever happy?

  • What do 7th graders really want?

  • should give parents and teachers pause. And it should give them a cause for which to join hands and march together.

    Why aren't such questions taken seriously any more? Why isn't a kindergartner's Happiness Index taken as seriously as his phonemic awareness score? Why don't we ask high schoolers this question: What do you really want? Ask that--and shut up and listen to the answer--instead of issuing rules that nobody gets a high school diploma without passing a high stakes math test based on algebra, geometry, statistics, and probability and a literacy test requiring deconstruction of a sonnet and the use of the semi-colon. (Okay, I'd contribute to research to find out if more than three members of the U. S. Congress know how to use a semi-colon. I happen to admire semi-colons; that doesn't mean I think leaving them in disarray has anything to do with America's standing in the world--or its domestic tranquillity.)

    Questions about children's happiness are neither frivolous nor rhetorical. The cruelty of No Child Left Behind puts childhood at grave risk, setting schools on a course that will produce very very angry children who grow up to be adults whose values are very skewed and who are mad as hell to boot.

    Layard includes a telling cartoon in his book. A bird tells a birdwatcher:I don't sing because I am happy. I am happy because I sing. Across the land, in the name of higher standardized test scores, schools are eliminating music. It is long past time to ask at what psychic cost this is being done. And for what possible good.

    I call for a nationwide commitment to working for the Happiness Index in our schools. In the June 29, 2003 New York Times David Barboza wrote that "Some food retailers have introduced labels indicating that an animal was raised with care." Can schools do any less? Every teacher, every year, must be able to testify that every child was educated with care.

    Childhood is short; it is our obligation to make sure it is also sweet.

    Cynics and entrepreneurs-for-capitalism will protest, "But what about competition?" Richard Layard answers.

    A society obsessed by status is condemned to that condition. Success becomes the main object of thought and conversation: who will get what job; how much will he be paid? We have to escape that condition.
    p. 162

    Layard acknowledges the role of competition as "a necessary motivator," but advocates a sensible balance which is less obsessed with rankings than what we now have. When you preach that life is essentially a competitive struggle, "then the losers become alienated and a threat to the rest of us, and even the winners cannot relax in peace." Layard points out that on many measures the Scandinavian countries are among the happiest and they have the clearest concept of the common good. Here's the percentage of children aged 11 to 15 agreeing that "Most of the students in my class[es] are kind and helpful":

    Switzerland. . .81
    Sweden . . . . .77
    Germany. . . . .76
    Denmark. . . . .73
    France. . . . . 54
    United States. .53
    Russia . . . . .46
    England. . . . .43

    If public policy, as the authors of the Declaration of Independence insisted, should be judged on how it increases human happiness and reduces human misery, then can schools aim for anything less than a passionate commitment to the common good?

    In his book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, Richard Layard observes that we "are past the period of evolution when only the fittest can survive. So we should teach our young to give less value to status and more value to helping other people. This idea is not new, but it is taking a real beating in the current era of unrestrained individualism." Layard explains,"We should teach the systematic practice of empathy and the desire to serve others. This needs a proper curriculum from the beginning of school life to the end, including detailed study of role models. . . the basic aim should be the sense of an overall purpose wider than oneself."

    We must strive for what Denise Levertov calls
    luxurious unlearing
    of lies and fears.

    As the fingerpaints, play house, blocks, and recess are elminated from kindergarten, how much of the 5-year-old's day is based on fear of failure?

    In "Solving for Pattern," Wendell Berry opens with the observation that "Our dilemma in agriculture now is that the industrial methods that have so spectacularly solved some of the problems of food production have been accompanied by 'side effects' so damaging as to threaten the survival of farming." He notes that he could as well be talking about school systems. Berry discusses three kinds of solutions: solutions that cause new problems, solutions that make things worse, and good solutions. Of his 14 good solutions, I zero in on two points: A good solution should be cheap (not enriching one person by the distress or impoverishment of another) and here is Number 10:

    Good solutions exist only in proof, and are not to be expected from absentee owners or absentee experts. Problems must be solved in work and in place, with particular knowledge, fidelity, and care, by people who will suffer the consequences of their mistakes. There is no theoretical or ideal practice. Practical advice or direction from people who have no practice may have some value, but its value is questionable and is limited. The divisions of capital, management, and labor, characteristic of an industrial system, are therefore utterly alien to the health of farming--as they probably also are to the health of manufacturing. The good health of a farm depends on the farmer's mind; the good health of his mind has its dependence, and its proof, in physical work. The good farmer's mind and his body--his management and his labor--work together as intimately as his heart and his lungs. And the capital of a well-farmed farm by definition includes the farmer, mind and body both. Farmer and farm are one thing, an organism.


    If we are ever to have happy children, we must throw out the federally-sanctioned absentee owners and absentee experts, profiteers and their lackeys who will first smother our public schools and then bury them. Instead, we must look to the particular knowledge, fidelity, and care of local remedies.

    John Adams wrote that "The happiness of society is the end of government." Let us return to our radical roots: let us bring the founding principle of the American Revolution to the communities served by our schools and ask if it isn't a worthwhile end of schools.

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