Joy in Education

March 4, 2015

My daughter is currently applying for kindergarten. You heard that right. She is applying to more kindergartens than I applied to colleges and—in the case of “independent” schools—she is applying to schools with more or less the same tuition as my college. This has meant countless school tours, parent interviews, and preambles from principals.

In the process, I’ve been surprised to see how often I find YCFC’s joy project coming to mind. Joy, it seems, is the all too often the missing ingredient in modern education. At least that’s what Susan Engel argued in an article for The Atlantic a few weeks back.

Engel’s starting point is simply that children are by nature joyful:

The thing that sets children apart from adults is not their ignorance, nor their lack of skills. It’s their enormous capacity for joy.

Joylessness, she suggests, is learned—all too often in school. There is a common sense, Engel says, that tells us that letting go of the simple joys of life is simply part of growing up—and, therefore, something a proper education must facilitate. Yet Engel insists that another kind of education is possible: an education where joy does not decrease but rather matures. For Engel, this is because, as human beings, we have a fundamental orientation toward joy:

Human lives are governed by the desire to experience joy. Becoming educated should not require giving up joy but rather lead to finding joy in new kinds of things…

What a beautiful picture of education: to nurture and mature the student’s innate sense of what is good, what is beautiful, what brings delight. Education should teach students “to take pleasure in meaningful, productive activity.” Students formed this way will collaborate, create, explore, and solve problems because it brings them joy. Less meaningful activities will just seem less appealing.

Engel focuses on the extent to which dreary education is ineffective education—and I take it she’s right. But I also wonder if there’s not yet a greater danger lurking about.

If our fundamental orientation to joy is not so easily shaken, “serious” education that ignores joy merely leaves it up to the student to feed this orientation by other means. Taught from an early age that “productive” means dreary, we develop not only an impoverished sense of work, but also of play. We talk oftentimes about a “work-play” balance, but I take it that most of our lives are marked by neither work nor play, but rather toil and entertainment. Why else do I feel compelled to watch “House of Cards” when more meaningful, productive, and, yes, joyful options are at hand?

There are signs that voices like Engel’s are being heard. These days, musician John Legend is stumping for a return of joy to education. And “joy” has been a notable refrain during our kindergarten-application season. “If you take away one word from today,” a principal said at the end of one presentation, “let it be this: joy.” May it be so.

by Matt Croasmun