Prioritise poverty and get happy

12th October 2007 at 01:00
Peter Wilby is a former editor of the 'New Statesman'

Is it possible to teach happiness? Or, to use the proper terminology, is the Government right to extend the "social and emotional aspects of learning" across all state schools? Anthony Seldon, the head of Wellington College, has no doubt; he has been developing "well-being" lessons for some years.

Yet happiness is an elusive concept. "Ask yourself whether you are happy," wrote Mill, "and you cease to be so." You won't feel happy after reading Tess of the d'Urbervilles or hearing La Boheme, but that doesn't mean you should ignore them. Some people are happiest when drunk or high. Others only seem truly comfortable when miserable.

I once put it to Mr Seldon that his "well-being" lessons echoed 19th-century public school character training. He replied that Victorian schools were about moulding a particular type of person, to run an empire and lord it over inferior races, whereas he wanted to help children find personal fulfilment, to give them an owner's manual so they could better handle their minds, bodies and emotions. Yet such lessons risk becoming vehicles for creating what authority thinks is an ideal citizen.

Though measuring happiness rather than economic growth and teaching well-being rather than facts and skills are usually considered left-wing projects, I detect a covertconservative agenda. Perhaps, after being instructed socially and emotionally, the youths of Norris Green estate in Liverpool, where 11 year-old Rhys Jones was killed last month, will stop shooting each other. But I doubt, given their environment, that teachers can give them a sense of well being, or should even try to do so.

Therapy tends to be treated as an alternative to economic improvement. The affluent may welcome it. But the best way to make poor people happier is to lift them out of poverty.

I don't deny schools can improve children's sense of well-being. They can teach useful, interesting and stimulating things. Music, poetry, sport, drama, dance, science, nature, architecture, cooking, even maths all can touch the human soul and, if some children are too emotionally damaged to appreciate them, therapists may be able to help but not, I think, teachers. Mr Seldon may reply that a broader curriculum is exactly what he has in mind. If so, he and the Government should get on with it, and not package it up as something else.

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