The introduction of a new subject for the Junior Cycle, Well-being, has been much lauded by the media as the advent of a fresh dawn in Irish education – a dawn which claims to put the pupil at the very centre of the school community. However, for all its promises and positivity, there is much more at stake in Wellbeing than simply a benevolent desire on the part of the Department of Education to help our children be happier. This subject represents a new definition of education, a shift from parents to teachers as the primary educators of children and the replacing of principles of justice and individual responsibility with a liberal concept of care and community.
1. A new definition of education:
School has always been a place of discovery. As a young teacher, I was inspired by the idea that knowledge was power – one book that particularly made an impact on me was ‘And Still We Rise’ by Miles Corwin, a true-life account of how one Los Angeles teacher changed the lives of her pupils through an incisive, comprehensive course in English literature. There is a sector of educational philosophy, however, which believes that such a concept of education is lacking; education should not only be about expanding the intellect and preparing pupils for working life. In a 2008 research paper on well-being commissioned by the NCCA, Maeve O’Brien considers the idea that perhaps ‘happiness is an appropriate aim of education’ (172) and that ‘the possibilities for schooling to make a significant contribution to the happiness of young people’ are significant. The Draft Consultation on Wellbeing states that teachers are to guide children to recognise and understand both their positive and negative feelings – ‘That I am aware of my thoughts, feelings and behaviours and that I can make sense of them’ (37). Of central importance is that every child would realise that they are emotional beings, prone to good and bad days, and that they would be aware of when and where to get support. Under the umbrella of Wellbeing, children will learn to become focussed on themselves, aware of their emotional needs, knowledgeable concerning what services and societal attitudes they have the right to, and experts in analysing their own thoughts and feelings. Thus, in Wellbeing, there is a great danger that education – the transmission of knowledge – will be redefined as the social engineering of a generation that has been convinced that, above all else in life, being happy is most important.
Wellbeing – put simply: Once you went to school to learn, now you go to school to be happy.
2. Teachers (as State employees), not parents, are the primary educators of children
The Irish Constitution states that ‘the State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children.’ Parents have always been regarded as the primary source of instruction for their children and it is a parental right for a child to be educated in all areas as the parents see fit. School and family have historically worked together, with both institutions complementing each other at best; in cases where parents have disagreed with the subject matter of a specific class (i.e. religion or RSE/SPHE), it has been their right to remove their child from that class.
The NCCA Draft Guidelines recognise that ‘wellbeing can mean different things for different people’, and thus have defined Wellbeing very broadly as ‘encompassing social, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, environmental, and physical education’. In doing so, they have appropriated areas for instruction which have always belonged firstly to parents. The state is replacing the parent as the primary educator and is taking responsibility for all areas of instruction, not just intellectual.
Now all teachers are expected to be proactive in promoting wellbeing in the school community, regardless of subject area, and there is to be a pervading climate in which ‘children and young people feel safe and secure and which respects and develops children’s rights and wellbeing’. (By the way, schools are already supposed to be safe and secure environments.) Topics to be addressed under Wellbeing include relaxation techniques and mindfulness, global citizenship, awareness of ecological footprint, sustainable living, weaknesses of the democratic process, sexual intimacy, sexual health and gender identity, among many more. There are many parents with strong moral values who would highly disapprove (and rightly so) of the above being taught to their 12-15 year olds by anyone else other than themselves; yet the State is taking it upon itself to instruct young people in its own definition of wellbeing, thereby bypassing and disregarding parents.
Because Wellbeing is to be incorporated into the whole-school ethos, it will be difficult for any concerned parent to remove their child from instruction in the subject.
3. Replacing principles of justice and individual responsibility with a liberal concept of care and community.
A brief examination of both the NCCA ‘Draft Guidelines on Wellbeing in Junior Certificate’ (2016) and the NCCA-commissioned ‘Wellbeing and Post-Primary Schooling: A review of the literature and research’ (2008) reveals that the educational philosophy of Nell Nodding is central to the objectives of Wellbeing. Nell Nodding is an American feminist, an educational philosopher and a past president of the John Dewey Society. Her beliefs that ‘care…should be viewed as the ethical idea of education’ and that ‘happiness is an aim of education’, are promoted throughout the NCCA literature as the new ideal to which all schools should now aspire. Nodding believes that caring is more preferable than a justice-based approach to ethics, and wrote in 2005 that increasing security, administering tests or encouraging teachers to be knowledgeable in their subject areas will not solve the problems of ignorance and unhappiness; ‘Instead we must allow teachers and students to interact as whole persons and we must develop policies that treat the school as a whole community’. (Educational Leadership, 2005). Nodding views educational success in terms of happiness levels. School is to be, above all, a caring community where pupils feel they belong.
But is care not a subjective term? Where do the realities of discipline, test failure, team selection etc. fit into this model? How does this philosophy prepare our children for the workplace where they must abide by rules and regulations, and they must reach a certain standard of productivity? If we measure success in terms of happiness, what about the child who feels happiest when he is not at school? Or who feels that school-work makes him unhappy? It is worrying that the Department of Education would force us to change our beliefs concerning education to fall in line with the abstruse, impracticable philosophy of a feminist educationalist.
Plato wrote of a cave where the prisoners sat and watched shadows dancing on the wall. Searching for the source of the shadows at first brought pain and discomfort, but those who prevailed found themselves free from the ignorance of the cave. It was once our vocation as teachers to help free the prisoners from the chains of ignorance by giving them the gift of knowledge; with Wellbeing, it now appears that we are simply polishing the chains and refurbishing the cave.
(source: Google Images)