Well-being? Ending poverty comes First

28th September 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? My esteemed fellow columnist Anthony Seldon, the head of Wellington College, has no doubt: he has been developing "well-being" lessons for some years.

Yet happiness and well-being are elusive concepts. "Ask yourself whether you are happy," wrote Mill, "and you cease to be so." Pigs seem happy but, as the ancient Greeks rhetorically asked, is it better to be a contented pig or a dissatisfied philosopher? You won't feel very happy after reading Tess of the d'Urbervilles, watching a performance of Macbeth or hearing La Boheme, but that doesn't mean we should ignore them. Some people, on the other hand, are happiest when hopelessly drunk or high on cocaine. Then there are people who, as my late mother used to put it, are only happy when miserable. They are not clinically depressed, but a negative view of the world is what they feel most comfortable with.

I once put it to Mr Seldon that his "well-being" lessons echoed the 19th century public schools' 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. He wanted to help children to 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.

In Europe, religion did provide a sense of well-being to most people, and it still does in many other parts of the world, but it can be used by governments to maintain control and persuade the poor to come to terms with their lot.

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 covert (and probably unconscious) conservative 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 deprived 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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