In Context IX: "I Do Not Want Children at Westland to Be Happy," by Melinda Tsapatsaris

I think it is so foolish for people to want to be happy. Happy is so momentary—you’re happy for an instant and then you start thinking again. Interest is the most important thing in life; happiness is temporary but interest is continuous.
— Georgia O'Keefe

August 20, 2018

Last June I attended the California Association of Independent Schools’ Heads of School gathering in Santa Barbara. The keynote speaker was Harvard Graduate School’s Richard Weissbourd. An author on parenting and education, Weissbourd shared his current research and pulled out three major purposes of education that he and his team are analyzing how children, educators, and parents prioritize them: 1. Caring: Are our children compassionate and genuinely concerned for others? 2. Achievement: Are our children academically able? 3. Happiness: Are our children happy? His basic thesis was that the Caring category is significantly subordinated by the Achievement and Happiness categories in schools (and homes) across the country, and that our society’s de-emphasis on Caring is, in fact, problematic.

Once he presented all his data, Weissbourd urged us heads of school to—please—be more intentional about emphasizing Caring more, because of how divisive these times are, because of a dearth of moral leaders, and because of the fact that his and his team’s research was revealing that the more we want children to achieve academically, the less they do achieve and that the more we want children to be happy, the less happy they are.

Weissbourd lamented that there is an over-emphasis on “collective wellbeing” but a shortage of wellness. He shared that 30 percent of the Harvard undergrad student population is medicated for anxiety. Weissbourd invited us educators as well as parents to replace the emphasis on happiness to social emotional learning and moral development. He pinpointed what he saw as the purpose of education—to raise caring, ethical productive citizens. He said, “We don’t have the reflex to remind kids that they have responsibility and obligation to their communities.” I wrote down his quote in my black sketchbook and my cheeky bubble thought was: “Westland does.”

In the Q&A session that followed (the one where seven male heads of school spoke before a female head of school got in a question…I’ll stop, I’ll stop…a story for another blog), I ended up eventually asking a question, which landed oddly, unfortunately. I searched for my question as I asked it: “What’s the big deal about being happy? Where did it come from, because…I’m not that into being happy…like…I really appreciate sadness and the blues and the range of emotions that humans get to feel. Is this quest for happiness connected to consumerism or white supremacy culture…a platform of privilege that we are entitled to be happy at all times?” I stopped talking about there and heard one head murmur, “Um, The Declaration of Independence.” The room got quiet and I felt a pregnant pause that jumpstarted my unproductive self-talk that went something like, “Melinda, you’re such a weirdo” as I took a mental, visceral walk down seventh-grade memory lane. Weissbourd—to the rescue—handled my question thoughtfully, referencing the self-esteem movement in California from the 1970’s and how this movement connects to where we are now in terms of being happiness-obsessed but living in a happiness drought. I wasn’t totally 100 percent satisfied with his answer though, but I attributed my dissatisfaction to my flawed question. (I will say that afterwards, three female heads and one male head came up to me and said, “Yes!” and “Thank you! I get it—Miles Davis Kind of Blue.”)

The real answer and validation to my question arrived weeks later in a completely different setting: the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe. After an hour of taking in her paintings and sketches, more interesting and radical than I had ever given her credit for, I read the following quote O’Keefe shared in an interview:

“I think it is so foolish for people to want to be happy. Happy is so momentary—you’re happy for an instant and then you start thinking again. Interest is the most important thing in life; happiness is temporary but interest is continuous.”

Yes! I wrote Weissbourd upon returning to Los Angeles and shared with him O’Keefe’s quote. (He wrote back a gracious reply.) I also immediately thought of this very blog and the subsequent title: I Do Not Want Children at Westland to Be Happy.

So let’s talk about our children at Westland and how I’m most interested in them finding an interest/interests over happiness. Our questions beget more questions. Interest leads to depth, to study, to a pursuit of other interests and connections. It leads to that feeling of flow—the beautiful sense of being vividly present in an interest. Happiness is fleeting, ephemeral. Interest is steadfast, joyful. It can be joyful even when it’s difficult. While I’m, of course, fine with happiness and know that it feels good to be happy, when I think about it, pursuing interest is what’s been happening at Westland all along.

Westland and other progressive schools oftentimes utilize a constructivist approach to learning. The departure point for most studies is the children’s questions. From there the teacher creates learning opportunities (going on field trips, inviting in expert speakers, going to the library to research) where the students themselves engage with their questions in pursuit of knowledge and inevitably more questions. They *construct* their knowledge. I was reminded of something a teacher told me last year—that a study never ends. Last week a parent shared that her son, having just completed Group Two, on a family trip to the East Coast, made a face of joy that she’s never seen before. “What!?” she wondered, for never had she seen this look of total glee—not on his birthday, not after a winning hit at a baseball game. Her son shouted, “Look! That’s a North American male cardinal!” A study never ends.

And because of this fact, students develop the habits of being interested: Being perpetually curious. Getting stuck and figuring out how to get unstuck. Seeking evidence that surrounds, supports, and even interrupts their current understanding. Connecting what they’re interested in to other studies and personal pursuits. And perhaps my favorite: connecting to other people in meaningful ways.

I could, and probably should wrap it up here. I can’t though. My learning extended and brought me back not to happiness, but to joy. I now have a new thesis regarding Weissbourd’s research since happening upon a passage from Caroline Pratt’s, I Learn From Children. Pratt writes: “Freedom was good only if it meant freedom to do something positive, and that something positive was determined by the child’s interest in what he wanted to do. The freest child is the child who is most interested in what he is doing, and at whose hand are the materials for his work or play. The mere fact of being a member of a group imposed certain checks on individual behavior, just as an adult finds he must abide by the mores of the community in which he lives. …Freedom to work, and the discipline of work, both individual work and group work—these were the values on which the children thrived and grew.”

Pratt, a mother of progressive education who founded City and Country School in New York and literally invented the unit blocks our children build with to this day, writes about the essentialness of interest, linking it to nothing less than our children’s sense of freedom, to them thriving and growing. With interest comes responsibility. A student of mine once shared, “Wild curiosity drives me, but it makes sense to only study things that truly benefit myself and others. That is the responsibility of curious people.” By connecting interest to serving the common good, interest takes on a whole new meaning. It leads to joy, which I think is cooler than happiness.

In The Book of Joy, which details the delightful conversations of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the two wise men lay out in chapter after chapter that if we serve and help others, if our lives—our interests I’d add—are in the context of community—we will then consistently know joy. Humans find joy through helping others.

So now when I enter campus and see children smiling, I’ll understand why a bit differently. Throughout their studies and their exploration of their interests, students at Westland are consistently asked to consider the group, to think of how to make their school community better and stronger, and to help each other.

I’m going to start looking more closely, too, and appreciate the students not smiling—the focused ones, the puzzled ones, the interested ones. Interest abounds here, as does a care for community. As does joy. I’m going to start replacing and correcting my “I just want her to be happy’s,” with “I just want her to be interested.” I’m going to not let any interest-stone go unturned. Our children are experts at being interested. A student’s obsession with Marvel can lead him to a passion for Greek Mythology (True story.) So whether it be Iron Man, contemporary dance, surfing, the Constitution, Malibu’s ban on plastic straws, 90’s fashion, the Dodgers, or North American Cardinals, the invitation is to remember that interest begets more interests. I am proud that our Westland students know the responsibility of curious, interested people. So I’m changing the title of this blog from, I Do Not Want Children at Westland to Be Happy to: Children at Westland: Interested, Caring, and Joyful.