A lesson in how to be happy? Not quite
Toby Young is not impressed by Wellington College's classes in 'Happiness', which he says are a wishy-washy mixture of anger management and relativism passing through the wrought-iron gates of Wellington College, you wouldn't think it had become a centre of educational experimentation. Founded in 1853 and named after the victor of Waterloo, it looks like a monument to Britain's imperial past It's little wonder that Jeffrey Archer pretended to be an Old Wellingtonian in an attempt to shore up his credentials as a future Conservative leader.
That all changed when the school governors decided to appoint Dr Anthony Seldon as Master at the beginning of last year. As has been widely reported in the press, pupils in years 10 and 11 now attend fortnightly 'Happiness Classes', part of an experiment devised by the school's staff in consultation with Dr Nick Baylis, co-director of the Cambridge Well-being Institute.
Last Monday I was fortunate enough to witness a happiness lesson with my own eyes — though the 'pupils' consisted of 191 educationalists rather than 20 wide-eyed teenagers. This exercise was part of a oneday 'Happiness' conference at Wellington organised by Seldon in the hope of persuading other teachers to introduce similar classes at their schools.
The lesson was taught by Ian Morris, a religious studies master at Wellington who has become a passionate advocate of 'Happiness Classes' since Seldon's arrival. Through a combination of meditation, visualisation, dramatic role-play and a five-minute clip from Fawhy Towers, Morris tried to show how anger can be turned into 'positive energy'. Managing anger in this way is one of the 'life skills' that Seldon hopes to inculcate in his pupils as part of what he calls 'trying to educate the whole child'.
I have to say that if I were a parent shelling out £24,000 a year to send my child to Wellington, I would not have been impressed. The lesson seemed more suited to a group of unruly teenagers at a young offenders' institute than GCSE students at one of Britain's top independent schools. For instance, Morris had two actresses stage an argument in which one of them lost her temper after being called a 'silly cow'. The idea, apparently, was to illustrate how the use of certain phrases can trigger 'negative emotion'. He then asked members of the audience if they could guess what the phrase was in this instance. A teacher from Marlborough raised his hand. Was it 'silly cow'? Right first time!
Was this really an example of the sort of lesson that some of the best brains in contemporary education think ought to be taught in Britain's schools? The other co-director of the Well-being Institute is Felicia Huppert, the current Cambridge Professor of Psychology, and one of the most prominent advocates of this new approach is Richard Layard, Emeritus Professor of Economics at the LSE. (He is the author of Happiness: Lessons From a New Science.) Both of these luminaries were present at Seldon's one-day conference and, given their involvement, I was expecting the 40-minute 'Happiness Class' to have a little more depth. Morris's lesson on anger-management didn't amount to much more than telling children to take a deep breath and count to ten the next time they felt angry.
In fairness to Morris, his lessons are probably a lot more lively when he's teaching a group of teenagers — and Seldon is quick to point out that he isn't suggesting 'Happiness Classes' should replace more traditional subjects at Wellington. On the contrary, they're taught in the place of PHSE (Personal, Health and Social Education), a wishy-washy, unexamined subject that is part of the national curriculum. (It's sometimes referred to as 'Citizenship') The hope of people like Huppert, Layard and Baylis is that a more informed, scientific approach to producing well-rounded young adults — an approach informed by the work being carried out by 'Positive Psychologists' like Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania —will replace PHSE.
Listening to the various speakers at the one-day conference, it soon became clear that their purpose is both more high-minded — and less objective — than the word 'Happiness' implies. They are not simply advocating that children should be given the skills 'to pursue their own good in their own way', to use John Stuart Mill's famous phrase. Rather, they have a very clear idea of what the good life consists of — and it doesn't include drugs, alcohol, television, video games or high-tech consumer goods like iPods and Sony PlayStations. Rather, their notion of 'Happiness' is closer to what Socrates called eudaimonia — a state of profound emotional and intellectual fulfilment that stems from living a meaningful life.
Needless to say, there's a strong whiff of Puritanism about all this — and it's not surprising that the movement has attracted a good many old-fashioned liberals. (Richard Layard, who was made a life peer in 2000, has been called `Blair's Happiness guru') This has led some critics, such as the sociologist Frank Furedi, to claim that making people happier — in the rarified sense that these intellectuals are talking about — is exactly the sort of good intention that the road to hell is paved with. In an article in the Daily Telegraph, he referred to the 'Well-being Institute' as 'Orwellian-sounding' and pointed out that Stalin called himself `the constructor of happiness'. As if in confirmation of these fears, Wellington College has already announced its intention to appoint 'well-being prefects', conjuring up images of a group of apparatchiks handing out detention to boys who've failed to exhibit the necessary degree of 'Happiness'.
On the other hand, it was difficult to take such alarmism seriously after witnessing Ian Morris's lesson. My own feeling is that, far from having some sinister, totalitarian agenda, the advocates of 'Happiness Classes' aren't nearly ambitious enough. Clearly, part of the appeal of this approach to liberal intellectuals is that it manages to go a little further than PSHE in terms of teaching children fundamental values without breaching the sacred taboos of multiculturalism. Martin Seligman, the intellectual founder of the 'well-being' movement, is on record as saying that both the terrorists who blew up the Twin Towers and the firefighters who died trying to save people from the collapsing buildings led 'meaningful lives'. In other words, 'Positive Psychology' is, at its core, a relativist doctrine — and the same goes for the 'Happiness' cult.
Surely a more fruitful approach would be to replace PSHE classes with something much more substantial, in which British schoolchildren are taught that the pursuit of happiness, along with the freedom that makes it possible, is crucially dependent on a legal and institutional framework that rests on a bedrock of Judaeo-Christian values. To try to defend this framework in a way that is neutral when it comes to choosing between different cultures and religions is doomed to failure.
Seldon has spoken repeatedly about his desire to give children a 'liberal education', but no truly liberal education can be based on a doctrine that refuses to take sides between Islamist suicide bombers and the men and women who gave their lives trying to save innocent people on 9/11. If Anthony Seldon is serious about wanting to create well-rounded citizens capable of dealing with whatever life throws at them in the 21st century, he and his cohorts are going to have to come up with more than a few well-meaning platitudes about how to control your temper.