The rise of COVID has exacerbated a recent sense of global crisis, with economic, political, and environmental aspects. Individuals experience such pressures as personal challenges to well-being. These conditions are also a factor in schools teaching for social and emotional learning, character education, and other lessons about attitudes and feelings. Such education aims to help young people feel better, and therefore be better, cognitively, emotionally, and socially. This has benefits in some cases, but also limitations, and it can create new problems.
Education for well-being is backed up by research in two fields. The first is positive psychology, which focuses on cultivating good feelings as a precursor for general social functioning and positive interpersonal relationships. In this field, happiness, compassion, gratitude, resiliency, grit, and mindfulness are promoted as key to well-being and functioning. Positive psychologists argue that these emotions and strategies for developing them should be taught, to help young people achieve more, feel better, and be productive members of society.
Another field emphasizing well-being is virtue ethics. Following an Aristotelian framework which emphasizes flourishing as eudemonia, virtue ethicists argue that being disposed toward well-being, gratitude, compassion, and the like can make one a better, kinder person, who works effectively with others in personal and public life. Philosophers of education also argue for the cultivation of positive character traits in education, for developing morally good societies, where people are “Good Samaritans” toward diverse others.
Such ideas have wide intuitive appeal. Few among us want to feel bad, or want others to feel bad. Nonetheless, in working out the details of these proposals in educational settings, several pitfalls come to mind. I discuss these challenges in my text Beyond Virtue: The Politics of Educating Emotions.
In education there are right and wrong answers, but emotional experiences are more complicated than “good” or “bad.” In this case, students may mistakenly learn they have the “wrong” feelings, which is hardly helpful for enhancing well-being. Another challenge is that views of emotions are culturally influenced. Gratitude and happiness are understood differently in the United States and China, and the United States and the United Kingdom. So here cultural learning, and cultural bias, is involved. Additionally, gender roles and cultural stereotypes play a role in social expectations about emotions. This means that boys may be looked down upon for being caring and empathic, hindering a universal approach to caring.
More problematically, programs for well-being and “emotional virtues” in schools tend to downplay other considerations beyond feelings that impact well-being, such as stressors found within the environment. Healthy functioning, and being a good moral person, also requires that people scrutinise the world around them, not just their feelings, to make a positive difference in society. I argue in this case that we as educators need to encourage a social and relational approach to well-being, so young people are encouraged not only to ‘look within’ for answers, but to also examine the world around them, in stiving to become good members of society. Going beyond personal virtue, politics also cannot be avoided if education is truly to work to empower young people to enhance the world around them.