Student Happiness: Why It Doesn't Matter

Feb 8, 2013 3:03:52 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Dr. Michael Woolf

“Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA International Education's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

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The question of happiness, what it is or is not, is by no means simple. We can cite a debate on the nature of happiness that has occupied (preoccupied?) our civilisation for over 2.500 years.

For Aristotle writing almost 400 years before the birth of Christ, it represented the apex and purpose of human existence: “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence”. A relative newcomer, Virgil (writing about 50 years before Christ) took a more complex view: “Happy is the one who seeks to know the causes of things.” In this perspective, the root of that extraordinary condition is a restless pursuit of understanding combined with an awareness of the complexity of explanation (there are “causes” not a cause).

It takes centuries of war, holocaust and collective lunacy before we reach the definition that arguably most encapsulates the nature of contemporary experience. For Bertolt Brecht: “The happy man is he who has not heard the disastrous news.” In contrast to Aristotle and Virgil, Brecht sees happiness as a form of suspended ignorance. Being happy equates to a form of stupidity or, at least, the profound absence of information.

The views of Virgil and Brecht represent a spectrum of meaning whereby, at the Virgil end, the root of happiness is knowing. At the Brecht end of the spectrum, happiness is precisely a state of not knowing (A lobotomised soul smiles a lot too).

What exactly are we asking our students, therefore, when we enquire as to their happiness? Probably we are taking an Aristotelian view because, frankly, it makes life easier if study abroad students, empowered and entitled by privilege, are satisfied with their condition. However, that position may betray our obligations as educators to challenge and disturb students, to take them out of their zone of comfort into experiences that should, of necessity, create a zone of unease. Humans learn little if they are self-satisfied and content. By its very nature, international education should take participants from certainty to uncertainty, from a resolved sense of national identity to a position wherein identity itself is questioned. Living abroad creates a sense of unease about identity and challenges the notion of personal and national identity. That is not Aristotelian happiness but is closer to Virgil’s search for understanding. The absence of that understanding will fulfil the Brechtian equation of happiness with stupidity.

Study abroad, has become preoccupied with questions of student “happiness”. However, the object of study abroad is not to make students happy; nor is it to make then unhappy (though Brian Whalen has argued that fear is the greatest instructor).

Student happiness or unhappiness is not our concern. That state of bliss usually has more to do with assorted issues of money, sex, love, dreams, mental stability, physical condition and so on (in this respect students, like us, are people too). If we are to gain and retain a sense of the seriousness of our endeavours and to establish some parity of esteem with other academic programmes, we have to stop talking, thinking or worrying about what is none of our business i.e. student happiness. Should the History professor on the completion of his course on the Holocaust pause to enquire of his students’ happiness?

What matters is what students learn.

Topics: International Education