Sky's the limit for lives full of meaning

27th March 2009 at 00:00
Forget happiness lessons, says philosopher of education: children must be directed towards activities in which they can find individual purpose

Scrapping the traditional school timetable is the only way to ensure pupils are prepared for a meaningful life, says a leading academic.

And, he argues, such a step would be a far more effective antidote to long-term discontent than happiness lessons.

John White, emeritus professor of the philosophy of education, argues that the role of education is to provide children with a sense that their lives are meaningful.

But there are different ways to conceive of a meaningful life, he says. He believes the traditional, subject-based curriculum is based on a religious idea of meaningfulness, which sees this life as a testing ground for the next. It rests on the assumption that a wide and thorough knowledge of God's world is necessary for salvation.

By contrast, the secular view suggests that worthwhile goals, interests and passions provide purpose to life.

Intelligibility also provides meaning, says Professor White, formerly of London University's Institute of Education.

"For the radically depressed person, the things that have filled her life - her work, her relationships with her friends, her home life, her artistic interests - none of these things now seems to make sense . They lack overall intelligibility."

Meaningfulness, Professor White adds, is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon: there are differing degrees. But the more someone's life includes isolated or unintelligible activities, the less meaningful it is.

Children should therefore be directed towards activities and relationships in which they can be fully and successfully involved. They should be encouraged to lead autonomous lives, responding to their own ideas of purposefulness.

"Children come to know what a meaningful life is by engaging in one," Professor White said. "Education for a meaningful life has to be a process that pervades one's day-to-day life. This is why reformers who pin their hopes on isolated happiness lessons as an antidote to present or later depression may be on the wrong track."

There is no one pattern of life that is right for all people, he believes. Instead, there is an array of worthwhile activities, all suited to individual temperaments and experiences.

But introducing pupils to an unrestricted range of worthwhile activities is a potentially lengthy process. It tends to take place at university rather than school. But fewer than half of all teenagers go to university.

Professor White recommends changing the later years of school in order to build in more time for general exploration. "To make school life more meaningful requires rethinking the traditional academic curriculum of discrete subjects, and the way in which this is timetabled," he said.

"We need to reconsider what schools should be for, and arrange learning activities in the light of these aims."

`Education and a meaningful life', by John White, appears in the March issue of `Oxford Review of Education'.

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