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What Schools Need Is a Happiness Index

Publication Date: 2003-06-29

People who care about public schools need to ask why the school research approved by the U. S. government cares less about happiness than does the chicken research sponsored by McDonald's.

Marching in lockstep to demonstrate its allegiance to a Big Business model,the New York City school district trumpeted its hiring of Neutron Jack Welch as chief advisor to the newly formed academy for training principals. Now McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken have given the rest of the nation's public schools a somewhat different corporate model to consider. These corporate giants are sponsoring research to find out answers to such questions as Are cows ever happy? Do pigs feel pain? What do chickens really want?

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 Are schoolchildren ever happy? Do schoolchildren feel pain? What do schoolchildren 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 high stakes math tests based on algebra, geometry, statistics, and probability and other high stakes tests requiring deconstruction of a sonnet and the use of the semi-colon.

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.

It's time for us to commit ourselves to working for the Happiness Index. The New York Times article below indicates 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.

Animals Seeking Happiness
by David Barboza
The New York Times
June 29, 2003

Can a white leghorn hen be truly happy?

That's one question researchers are asking in the emerging academic field called "animal well-being."

These researchers videotape chickens at play or rig doors so pigs can use their snouts to choose between eating their food alone or hanging out with other swine. The scientists attend conferences to hear papers with titles like "Hyperaggressiveness in Male Broiler Breeder Fowl."

Through behavioral research and animal biology, the experts try to find out: Are cows ever happy? Do pigs feel pain? What do chickens really want?

They know they're asking touchy-feely questions of a system that profits from mass slaughter. But they consider themselves pioneers.

"Asking scientific questions about an animal's feelings is brand new," says Edmond A. Pajor, an associate professor of animal behavior at Purdue University.

These Dr. Doolittles are financed in part by restaurant chains like McDonald's and KFC, which have been accused of helping to create harsh conditions on animal farms, where chickens, pigs and cattle are bred en masse. Of more than eight billion farm animals processed in the United States, most are crammed into cages, stalls and indoor barns before being killed. Their food is carefully rationed to promote optimal growth.

In recent years, especially in Western Europe, companies have felt rising pressure to treat animals humanely. Some food retailers have introduced labels indicating that an animal was raised with care.

Yet that's still far from ensuring that the animals are happy ? a state that is hard to define for human beings but that scientists are nonetheless trying to attain for livestock.

"It's hard to talk about happiness, so we're trying to reduce the number of negative emotional experiences," Professor Pajor said. For now, researchers are seeking to eliminate pain, suffering and frustration.

Of course, if it were up to the animals, they might simply prefer longer lives. Dairy cows that used to be milked for five to seven years are now milked for two or three years before being made into hamburger. Chickens live an average of 46 days, birth to McNugget.

Then again, if the animals' lives are destined to be short, perhaps it's all the more important that they be sweet.

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