Teaching the Good Life: how to make citizens, not sheep

Just over a decade ago, the government decided that emotional well-being should be taught in British schools. The initiative was part of the Every Child Matters policy shift in 2003, which was dogged from the start by a bureaucratic obsession with acronyms: ECM declared, for example, that schools had a statutory responsibility to turn children into SHEEP (Safe, Healthy, Enjoying life, Economic well-being and Positive contribution). Only a bureaucrat could have come up with that.

The government’s first foray into teaching well-being was the subject Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL), which was introduced as a voluntary subject in primary schools in 2003, then into secondary schools in 2007. In 2008, it became the core module in the compulsory primary and secondary subject Personal, Social, Health and Economic education (PSHE).

SEAL was created in the late 1990s by the chief educational psychologist in Southampton local education authority (LEA), Peter Sharp, after he read a book of popular psychology: Emotional Intelligence, by New York Times journalist Daniel Goleman. Sharp was so enthused by Goleman’s idea that emotional intelligence could be taught in schools, that he decided EI “should be given priority alongside literacy and numeracy”. Other LEAs got the EI bug, and EI classes spread across the country like swine flu.

In 2002, the Department of Education asked an academic at the University of Southampton, Katherine Weare, to assess EI. She made much of the subject’s strong evidence base, particularly the evidence in Goleman’s “seminal” work, and the enthusiasm of teachers and LEAs for the subject. And so the government rolled out SEAL nationally.

Somehow, a work of popular psychology had abruptly become part of the national curriculum. Goleman’s book, although a big popular success, was not well-regarded in scientific circles. It seemed to have thrown many different, and conflicting, psychological theories under one catch-all phrase. It made unfounded claims, such as that EI classes led to better career prospects.

Yet it took until October 2010 for the Department of Education (DofE) to get round to publishing the first independent assessment of SEAL, by the University of Manchester. It found that SEAL had no quantifiable impact on children’s emotional well-being or academic performance; and the loose format of the subject enabled schools to teach more or less whatever they wanted. As a Radio 4 analysis programme found this month, one school happily taught children that they had seven energy centres in their body, emitting light of different colours.

DofE has since said that no more time and resources should be spent on SEAL. It also published a review of PSHE in January 2011, by Sheffield Hallam University. The review broadly welcomed the subject and encouraged its continued existence, but noted: “The practice of a subject being taught by teachers of whom upward of 90% do not have a specialist qualification would rarely or never be applied to other subjects, yet is commonplace for PSHE.” In other words, teachers want to teach emotional, social and economic well-being, but they don’t feel qualified, and a majority say they aren’t given the time or funding to get qualified.

It is unlikely that the government is going to stop teaching well-being. Instead, SEAL will probably be replaced by a programme called Emotional Resilience, designed by Martin Seligman, the inventor of Positive Psychology, and now being piloted in three local education authorities. The ER classes will try to avoid the problems of SEAL. Where SEAL gave schools free rein, ER follows a very tight script, designed by Penn University according to the principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Positive Psychology. That means the British government will probably pay Penn University a huge sum for the course material and training.

What does any of this have to do with philosophy? Well, for the first few centuries of its existence, philosophy tried to teach young people well-being, and the art of the Good Life. That was the aim of Socrates, Epicurus, the Stoics, Plato and Aristotle, and all the various visiting Sophists who turned up in Athens offering to teach its youth the secret of happiness, for a small fee.

Right from the start, this was a controversial programme. Who were these sophists to take Athenians’ money and indoctrinate their youth? What gave them the right to claim expertise in ‘the art of living’? Were their own morals so incorruptible? Unsurprisingly, there was a backlash, with many Sophists being chased out of Athens, and at least one - Socrates - being put to death.

Today, we’ve come full circle. In fact, CBT and Positive Psychology were directly inspired by ancient philosophy, particularly by Stoicism and Aristotelianism. The inventors of CBT - Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck - both told me they were inspired by Stoicism, while Martin Seligman has told me he wants to teach young people the art of finding eudaimonia (the ancient Greek word for the Good Life).

But both CBT and Positive Psychology have tried to turn ancient philosophy into an objective science. The problem with this is that, where Socrates and his fellow philosophers tried to encourage debate, analysis and open minds, Positive Psychology covers up many of its moral assumptions and prescriptions under the guise of objective science. It presents its findings not as moral beliefs but as scientific facts.

Positive Psychology begs many questions. For example: is the Good Life the same as feeling good? Can we discover the Good Life simply by looking at the average results of happiness questionnaires? These questions are debated by Positive Psychologists, but children studying ER or SEAL are never given the opportunity to think through such questions for themselves. They are merely presented the ‘scientific evidence’ and made to follow it. Like SHEEP.

I personally like the idea of teaching well-being in schools, although I’m also aware that it’s a mission fraught with risk - mainly, the risk of being over-prescriptive and over-dogmatic. Here are four recommendations:

1) Change the name. Abandon ugly bureaucratic acronyms. Call the subject what is it: the Good Life.

2) Teach young people to debate various approaches to the Good Life. Don’t assume you have all the answers. The process of discussing the Good Life is an important part of the Good Life.

3) If you’re using ideas and techniques from ancient philosophy, then make reference to the original material. It’s better written than modern bureaucratese.

4) Train teachers in how to conduct philosophical debates, and give them the best course material possible: ask the country’s best philosophers, writers, movie makers, musicians and artists to put together a world class course on the Good Life. What is more important?