wish I had a dollar for every time a parent told me their fondest wish was that
their child be happy. As in: "I'm not worried about Jason's grades--I just
want him to have friends and be happy." Or: "I'm not going to insist that Mandy practice her flute. If it doesn't
make her happy, she can just quit."
I sometimes wonder about the pursuit of happiness as iconic American goal. I'm quite sure that Jefferson had something more noble and laudable in mind than deciding whether he should jot down a bit of transformative political philosophy--or perhaps take a nap, whichever seemed more fulfilling at the moment.
It's a good week for thinking about what makes us happy--and how we, the village, can raise our collective children to pursue the kind of happiness that matters, while simultaneously being aware of and grateful for their many blessings.
TIME magazine this week, Nancy Gibbs muses on the confounding information that
Americans scored higher on the ongoing Gallup "well-being index" this
summer than they did last summer. Although happiness plummeted in the months
after the economic meltdown, our national sense of well-being began to increase
in the spring, and has remained relatively high since, even though the news--pretty
much all the news--has been downright awful.
Gibbs suggests that Americans have adjusted their expectations, and that's a healthy thing:
is the all-American anesthetic, at some point Expectation Inflation was bound
to take its toll. I'm struck by how many people tell pollsters that the
voluntary downshifting and downsizing of the past year have come as a kind of
relief. Maybe we've lowered our standards. But we already knew that money can
buy only comfort, not contentment; happiness correlates much more closely with
our causes and connections than with our net worth.
does this square with current education oratory and thinking, wherein "low
expectations" are now equated with soft bigotry? It's clear that our
generational train of progress-through-education--the laborer's son becomes a
merchant, the merchant's son a professional, with each subsequent generation achieving
more--is creaking to an end. We are outstripping our natural resources and have
tilted our economy into crippling debt. The gap between rich and poor is
growing; I'm guessing the people who expressed relief about downshifting were
moving from the top tier into the middle.
We can expect all we want, but the reality is that we seem to be heading into a period where the Real Housewives of Atlanta might become appalling symbols of tacky excess, rather than an amusing glimpse into the style and habits of people lucky enough to pursue their personal pleasures. Are we re-defining happiness as much more than recognition, entertainment and stuff?
Speaking of expectations, how can we blithely critique teachers for not using "high expectations" as a handy tool to leverage student learning, when we're ambivalent about providing those same kids with adequate health care? Don't we want all children to reach for more than credentials and possessions--should we expect them to become productive in ways other than generating wealth?
we need to re-examine our current goal focus on college degrees, and how many
more dollars they're likely to yield over a lifetime of work, and start looking at non-material
aspirations and rewards, for our own children and for the nation. Here are the three
core outcomes I want for my own children, as a result of their formal and
- Important work. Work that leads to making something better, whether it's particularly lucrative or not. Work that is variable, challenging and absorbing.
- Civic engagement. Involvement in groups, relationships with people who have similar goals, volunteering, participating in relevant ways in the life of their community.
- Intellectual curiosity. A life-long interest in a broad range of issues and disciplines, and willingness to read, travel, discuss, ponder, and consider alternative points of view.
course, I want my children to be free from hunger and fear (and the fact that I
take such basic needs for granted probably speaks to the privileges I enjoy as
an American citizen). Continuous happiness, however, seems like a pretty
lightweight and empty goal. Gratitude is
a better place to begin.
Thanks for reading Teacher in a Strange Land. Happy Thanksgiving.
Image: TheABU@ Flicker Creative Commons