Enabling Everyone to Live Well

Authored by: Randall Curren

Handbook of Philosophy of Education

Print publication date:  October  2022
Online publication date:  October  2022

Print ISBN: 9781032000053
eBook ISBN: 9781003172246
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This chapter addresses the nature of well-being, happiness, and flourishing and their roles in education. The ethical significance of students’ present well-being is addressed, as well as the relationships between students’ needs, well-being, and academic success. Findings in Basic Psychological Needs Theory are introduced in explaining these relationships, in proposing a role for basic needs in educational justice, and to inform an account of flourishing and its educational promotion. The basis of claims concerning the aims of education is addressed, and a constructivist approach to defining institutional purposes is then deployed in defending flourishing as the paramount aim of education. Capabilities, understanding, and virtues are identified as the primary developmental sub-aims, and some general lessons are drawn regarding the educational promotion of flourishing.

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Enabling Everyone to Live Well

Well-being in education has become an important focus of multidisciplinary research and reform efforts in recent years. This has been stimulated by the dramatic growth of interdisciplinary research on well-being, and by growing awareness of the limitations of education for economic competitiveness and damaging effects of associated pressures on students and teachers. Philosophers, psychologists, and others have brought a variety of perspectives to bear on the ethical and educational significance of students’ and teachers’ well-being and on living well or flourishing as an aim of education. Arguments have been made for the inherent and instrumental value of enhancing students’ well-being, and an accumulating body of research suggests that schools that meet the needs crucial to student and teacher well-being are more likely to engender and sustain meaningful learning. Many educators have long accepted that unmet student needs can be an obstacle to learning and they have accepted some responsibility to address those needs. State education authorities have for their part begun to acknowledge the importance of student well-being, but they continue to resist the proposition that teacher well-being matters both inherently and as a foundation of student learning.

The ethical questions at stake cannot be adequately addressed without more specificity about the nature of the needs and aspects of well-being involved and how they should figure into an account of educational responsibilities or justice. What roles, if any, should well-being and needs play in a theory of justice, in defining a just system of education, or in conceptualizing a just school community? There are also important questions to address concerning the status of living well or flourishing as an aim, or as the overarching aim, of education. What is the basis of claims about the aims of education? What is flourishing and what is its role in the scheme of educational aims? How can education promote flourishing? These are the questions addressed in the sections that follow.

Well-Being, Happiness, and Flourishing

Well-being pertains to the quality of lives and the ways in which the lives of individuals of various species can go well or badly for them and be made better and worse by things good and bad for them. 1 Plants can exhibit well-being in this broad sense, as the conditions in which they live do, or do not, harm them and do, or do not, provide what is good for them. They can be said to thrive or flourish to the extent that they have what they need to sustain healthy growth and functioning characteristic of their species. Sentient creatures can similarly thrive or flourish, or not, but are distinctive in consciously experiencing some aspects of how well their lives are going. Pain is often a sign of actual or prospective harm to an organism and its life prospects, both objective and subjective, for instance. Creatures that can think, form bonds and plans, and coordinate their actions in mutually agreeable ways can not only experience their lives as pleasant and painful, but also in such ways as more or less frustrating or satisfying, happy or unhappy, successful or unsuccessful, good or bad. Thought, language, and position in a social world add nuance and moral elements to the objective dimension of how well a life is going, nuance to its subjective dimension, and the possibility of self-assessments of life satisfaction that are more or less aligned with or transcend these objective and subjective dimensions of well-being.

These objective, subjective, and self-assessment aspects of well-being are all present in the lives of human beings, and this has given rise to a variety of philosophical and psychological conceptions and measures of well-being – objective, subjective, and hybrid conceptions of well-being, including conceptions of happiness and flourishing (eudaimonia, living well), and measures of subjective, somatic, mental health, and flourishing or eudaimonic well-being (Lee, Kubzansky & Vanderweele 2021; Vitterosø 2016a; David et al. 2013; Waterman 2013; Kahneman et al. 1999). Leading philosophical theories of happiness have regarded it in various ways – as a positive emotional state, as satisfaction with one's life, or as pleasure (Haybron 2013) – and psychologists have often used a self-report questionnaire that combines assessments of life satisfaction and balance of positive and negative affect (SWB or Subjective Well-Being; Diener 1984; Diener et al. 1985), or a related combination of scales, as a measure of happiness. This “state of mind” conception of happiness is often contrasted with a more comprehensive conception of happiness as a “life that goes well for the person leading it” (Vitterosø 2016b: 3; cf. Kraut 1979). The latter equates happiness with well-being in all its aspects, and in doing so deviates from ordinary usage. In wishing our friends health and happiness, for instance, we typically think of good health as foundational to happiness, not as part of it, though we would readily agree that these are two aspects of personal well-being. In the interest of clarity, I will speak of happiness exclusively in the ordinary “state of mind” sense, and use the term flourishing to signify a comprehensive, all-inclusive, or eudaimonic conception of well-being. 2

The principal source of this second conception of happiness is the classical Greek term eudaimonia, as used by Aristotle, and the fact that it has often, though not altogether convincingly, been translated as “happiness.” The announced topic of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is living well (eu zên) or – what is presented as synonymous – eudaimonia, the highest end to which all human beings aspire (Barnes 1984: 1730 [NE I.1–2 1095a15–20]). What do people aspire to? Do they “just want to be happy”? I am convinced that Aristotle accurately perceived that what human beings aspire to is living well or flourishing in a sense that implies a life both happy and admirable (kalon). The kind of life that he identifies as what is in fact the best in this two-fold sense – the singularly happiest and most admirable life of which human beings are capable – is one that makes theoretical contemplation (theoria) in conformity with theoretical wisdom (sophia) its highest aim (Kraut 1989; Reeve 2012; Curren 2019). This conception of the naturally best life for human beings is the basis of his claim that “there are branches of learning and education which we must study merely with a view to leisure spent in intellectual activity, and these are to be valued for their own sake” (Barnes 1984: 2122 [Pol. VIII.3 1338a8–12]), though there is more to his theory of education than this implies (Curren 2000, 2013b). The narrowness and empirical implausibility of this specific conception of flourishing disqualifies it as a basis for contemporary social and educational policy and practice, but the underlying idea that fulfilling one's potential well is the key to happiness and a good life has many adherents.

The broadly Aristotelian conception of human flourishing that has been immensely influential in the philosophy and psychology of well-being, and in philosophy of education, is typically taken to be a comprehensive conception of well-being encompassing healthy or optimal growth and functioning, implying fulfillment of potential (implicitly or explicitly ‘positive’ or optimal in its qualities) and happiness in a sense that includes both pleasure and satisfaction (Ryan et al. 2013). 3 A central aspect of this understanding of flourishing, and one that has been the focus of considerable research, is the “Aristotelian Hypothesis” that fulfilling our potential well – which is to say, in activities that exhibit goodness or virtues – is foundational to happiness. Suffice it to say, for now, that there is substantial empirical support for this hypothesis (Curren 2019, 2013a; Ryan & Deci 2017; Curren & Metzger 2017: 80–84; Besser-Jones 2014). It does not follow that all activities that a person can engage in admirably are also pleasant and satisfying for her – there is no singularly best activity for all human beings. There is thus some tendency among researchers and educators to think of flourishing in terms of an individual's potential, which roughly translates as the fulfillments of their human potentialities that would be best for them (in the two-fold sense or in light of a comprehensive conception of well-being). 4 A recent definition of flourishing in philosophy of education that reflects this broadly Aristotelian conception of human flourishing defines it as “optimal continuing development of human beings’ potentials,” notably in relationships and “activities that are meaningful, i.e. aligned with both their own values and humanistic values, in a way that is satisfying to them” (De Ruyter, Oades and Waghid, 2020). 5

Research on flourishing has involved combinations of measurement instruments, including SWB and measures of stress (e.g., cortisol levels), mental health, and quality of task engagement (e.g., energy, persistence, and “flow” [Csikszentmihalyi 1990]), while various self-report instruments have been proposed as comprehensive measures of “optimal human functioning” (PWB or Psychological Well-Being; Ryff 2016: 95; Ryff & Keyes 1995) or flourishing (e.g., the PERMA-Profiler measure [Butler & Kern 2015]; see also Lee, Kubzansky & VanderWeele 2021). Kennon Sheldon has rightly observed that insofar as the latter are comprehensive measures of well-being or flourishing, they are not strictly measures of psychological well-being, and in doing well-being research what we often need is distinct measures of different aspects of well-being, so we can better understand how the latter are related to one another (Sheldon 2016, 2018). We want to understand such things as the impact of life goal orientations (e.g., image, wealth, and status-seeking versus personal growth, relationship, or service oriented) on happiness. Living well is largely a matter of the activities in which one engages, so measures of flourishing and attempts to promote it would properly focus on eudaimonic activities – activities that fulfill our potential in ways that are at the same time both good and personally satisfying (Curren 2019, 2020b; Sheldon 2018; Charles 2015).

The Ethical Significance of Students' Present Well-Being

With this understanding of well-being, happiness, and flourishing in mind, we can now address their significance in the sphere of education. Several aspects of students’ well-being matter ethically. Perhaps most obviously, the unhappiness, stress, and loss of childhood pleasures that many students experience in high-stakes, poorly funded, and often punitive learning environments diminish their present happiness and often their physical and mental health. Health, happiness, and these pleasures or goods of childhood – such as carefree play – have ethical significance that should weigh heavily in decisions that affect the lives of children (Macleod 2018; Bagattini & Macleod 2015; Brennan 2014). This ethical significance must be given due consideration in assessing the consequences of educational decisions made from the highest levels of policy to the most granular ones made at countless points in the day of a classroom.

Such weighing of children's well-being in assessing the likely consequences of educational decisions is not enough to fulfill educators’ responsibilities to their students, however. Even if we add that ongoing sacrifice of an individual child's present well-being could only be justified on the grounds that it would advance that very child's future well-being, there is more to consider than aggregate consequences. 6 While the impact of acts and policies on increments of well-being always matter ethically, we must ask whether there are also specific duties or rights at stake, principles of justice regarding access to goods that are essential to well-being, or specific needs that must be met as a matter of justice. A partial, legalistic answer is that, at least in common law jurisdictions such as the U.S., the state has responsibilities to safeguard and promote the well-being and developmental interests of all children, and these responsibilities are given effect in standards of custodial care for institutions. With regard to schools, these typically include provisions pertaining to safety, adequacy of instruction, and meals. Yet, from an ethical standpoint – the standpoint of justice – it is an open question how a government's “duty of protection to consult the welfare, comfort and interests of [each] child in regulating its custody during the period of its minority” should be spelled out as specific requirements of justice (In re Gould, 174 Mich. 6663 (1913)).

Resolving this question is beyond the scope of this chapter, but there are at least three general approaches that could be considered. The first, developed by John Rawls (Rawls 1971), identifies a set of primary goods, conceptualized as “social conditions and all-purpose means that are generally necessary” to pursuing a good life (Rawls 2001: 57). These are mostly conceived with adults in mind, and this limits their value for understanding what a society owes children with respect to their present well-being, as opposed to their future adult powers, rights, and opportunities. Rawls counts institutional bases of self-respect as a primary good (58), and this clearly imposes a duty on educational institutions to treat all children as equals, however different they may be with respect to race, ethnicity, or other differences. 7 The significance of this for children's happiness and overall well-being can hardly be exaggerated, but the direct significance of other primary goods, such as freedom of movement and choice of occupation, would be limited to preparatory or future-regarding aspects of schooling.

The Capabilities Approach (CA) as developed by Martha Nussbaum has wider direct significance for children's well-being in educational contexts, because it identifies central capabilities to function in ways that are for the most part essential to being and living well across the lifespan, such as having good health, bodily integrity, pleasurable experiences, and using one's imagination in “experiencing and producing works and events of one's own choice” (Nussbaum 2011: 33; cf. 2003). Education would properly focus on nurturing internal capabilities – the developmental aspects of combined capabilities (or simply capabilities), the substantive freedoms to function in ways essential to living well in the social, political, and economic circumstances of one's life (Nussbaum 2011: 20–21). Schools could scarcely succeed in this developmental task without allowing and encouraging children to actually function in these ways (23), so a CA perspective on educational justice with respect to children's development would warrant an ongoing – not just future – empowerment of children that would be favorable to their present well-being. As institutions that are not just responsible for the development of internal capabilities but play a significant role in determining children's combined capabilities or what they can actually be and do in the institutional circumstances of their lives, schools would also have duties of justice that are not subordinate to their preparatory function. Nussbaum presents her version of the CA as a human rights approach by making a case for regarding capabilities to function in ways sufficient for a minimally decent life of dignity as human rights. Affirming these as human rights across the lifespan would have the effect of specifying fundamental custodial duties with respect to foundational aspects of children's present well-being, as well as their future well-being. One of those duties, undoubtedly beneficial to students’ well-being, would be to provide them with opportunities to use their imagination in “experiencing and producing works and events of [their] own choice” (Nussbaum 2011: 33).

A third approach would identify rights pertaining to the satisfaction of basic needs related to the fulfillment of human potentials important to living well. Variations on such a view might be little different from Nussbaum's version of the CA, but (in Curren 2022) I have identified starting points for one that is distinctive in focusing on needs that play a central role in the psychological research that is arguably most helpful to addressing the relationships between children's well-being and their academic progress. These psychological needs can arguably function as a comprehensive set of basic needs, much as physical health and autonomy are intended to do in the influential needs-based approach of Len Doyal and Ian Gough (Doyal & Gough 1991). As in their approach and the one developed by Gillian Brock (Brock 2009), the needs in question are foundational to human agency, and thereby success in participating in society and pursuing goals. Addressing students’ needs has been a significant aspect of educators’ understanding of their responsibilities (as noted above), but the language of needs has played a remarkably small role in theories of justice (Brock & Miller 2019) and work in the ethics of education. We can begin to rectify this by recognizing that creating conditions in schools that are need-supportive or favorable to the satisfaction of the psychological needs in question might be conducive to students’ present well-being, conducive to students’ academic success, and ethically compulsory on a needs-focused theory of educational justice.

Well-Being, Needs, and Learning

Turning to the relationships between children's well-being and their academic progress, there is a robust body of evidence establishing the causal significance of positive emotions for physical health and longevity (Conway et al. 2013; Fredrickson 2013). Institutional arrangements that induce a preponderance of negative emotions in students are likely to result in additional harm to their health and life outcomes. Furthermore, we have decades of widely replicated research: (1) indicating that student learning and conduct are strongly influenced by satisfactions and frustrations of basic psychological needs that are predictive of happiness and unhappiness: and (2) identifying specific ways in which learning environments and teacher behaviors can be more or less need-supportive or favorable to the satisfaction of these needs (Ryan & Deci 2017: 351–381). This shows that student well-being and academic success are interrelated in ways that make a focus on what students need doubly important. It also identifies specific forms of need-support that make a difference to both well-being and learning.

To be specific, Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT) posits the existence of three universal psychological needs defined as nutrients that are essential for growth, integrity, and well-being (Ryan & Deci 2017: 10–12, 80–101). Frustration of these needs leads to observable and serious psychological and somatic harms related to impairment of growth, integrity, thriving, and fulfillment of potential. From a philosophical perspective, these needs constitute “Aristotelian necessities” (Foot 2001: 15) for living well or flourishing, while felt aspects of need frustration and satisfaction constitute natural signs of things good and bad for human beings (Curren 2013a, 2019). 8 The needs are for autonomy (self-directedness congruent with personal values and sense of self), relatedness (a supportive social climate and affirming relationships), and competence (experiencing oneself as capable); and the related potentialities can be broadly categorized as intellectual or agentive (the potential for rational self-determination), social, and productive (the potential to create and do things) (Ryan et al. 2013; Curren 2013a, 2022). A central, cross-culturally replicated finding is that the satisfaction of all three of these basic psychological needs through fulfillment of related potentials is essential to and predictive of well-being, measured in a variety of ways (Chirkov et al. 2011; Ryan et al. 2008; Ryan & Deci, 2001, 2017). Related research on the relationships between Nussbaum's central capabilities and well-being, and between perceived access to Rawls's primary goods and well-being, have shown that these relationships are mediated by satisfaction of the three basic psychological needs (DeHaan et al. 2016; Bradshaw et al. forthcoming). 9

BPNT is a key explanatory component of Self-Determination Theory (SDT), which has grown from an influential series of studies on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation five decades ago to a systematic theory of motivation, development, and well-being, built on decades of widely replicated research (Ryan & Deci 2017). Important to understanding the relationships between student well-being and learning is the fact that basic psychological needs play key roles not only in well-being but in learning, through the regulation of motivation and uptake and integration of values and goals. Satisfaction of children's relational, competence, and autonomy needs grounds their acceptance of new goals and values as their own, and autonomous motivation (acting from values and goals that one identifies as one's own) is the only kind of motivation that is consistently positively associated with academic achievement (Taylor et al. 2014). Attempts to motivate learning through controlling pressure (e.g., high-stakes exams or shaming) tend to displace autonomous motivation (including intrinsic or curiosity and interest-based motivation), and yield less meaningful learning. Absence of intrinsic motivation is bad for learning and for students (Gottfried et al. 2008).

What studies find is that extrinsic goal framing of the reasons students should engage in learning (e.g., to do well on tests) is counterproductive (Vansteenkiste et al. 2009). Lack of need-support predicts amotivation, low academic performance, low academic self-esteem, behavioral problems, and intention to drop out of school (Legault et al. 2006), whereas support for students’ autonomy, relatedness, and competence needs tends to sustain students’ autonomous motivation to learn (Jang et al. 2010) and has value in reducing violence and promoting friendliness and caring among students (Assor, Kaplan, Feinberg & Tal 2009; Kaplan & Assor 2012). Satisfaction of these needs is also foundational to character development generally (Curren 2017; Curren & Ryan 2020). Putting controlling pressure on teachers is similarly counterproductive. It tends to undermine the quality of teaching by triggering controlling behaviors toward students, frustrating the latter's needs for autonomy and positive connection, and preempting autonomous motivation to learn (Ryan & Brown 2005; Pelletier & Sharp 2009). All three of teachers’ basic psychological needs may be frustrated in the process, as they are compelled to act in ways they often experience as failures to serve their students’ interests (see Santoro 2018).

With regard to what is and is not need-supportive, a distinctive contribution of SDT has been to identify eight specific teacher behaviors that are autonomy supportive: “listening to students, making time for students’ independent work, giving students an opportunity to talk, acknowledging signs of improvement and mastery, encouraging students’ effort, offering progress-enabling hints when students [seem] stuck, being responsive to students’ comments and questions, and acknowledging students’ experiences and perspectives” (Ryan & Deci 2017: 367; see Reeve & Jang 2006; Reeve et al. 1999). Need-support with respect to competence pertains to optimizing the degree, pace, and variety of challenge through the structuring of learning tasks and guidance, so that students can experience progress in meeting challenges. The need for positive relatedness is as much a need to affirm others’ value as it is a need to receive such affirmation, and its satisfaction and frustration are a function of the qualities not only of ongoing relationships, but also transitory social interactions and the wider social world one inhabits. Relational need-support in schools must therefore encompass teacher-student relationships (“Does my teacher like me?”), peer relationships (“Can I make friends in my school?”), and the social tenor of the school generally (“Is there tension and conflict? Are people treated unfairly? Are the people in this school kind and caring?”)

In sum, the lessons of well-established research findings for promoting students’ present well-being are that: (1) students’ positive emotions are important to their health, longevity, and other well-being outcomes; (2) students’ present well-being and educational progress are substantially co-regulated by how need-supportive their learning environments are; (3) there are identifiable educational reforms that could make educational environments and teaching more need-supportive, and thereby better for students – more favorable to their present well-being, learning, and progress in living well. The cumulative lessons of this section and the preceding one are that (a) students’ present well-being matters because it is ethically important in its own right; (b) it is important as an object of educators’ custodial responsibilities that can be specified as matters of fundamental justice; and (c) it is instrumentally important to and deeply entangled with students’ learning. Some sacrifice of near-term well-being may be unavoidable in preparing children for the future, but such trade-offs are not as empirically or ethically as simple as they may seem. It is time to ask what role students’ future well-being or flourishing should play in our understanding of educational aims.

Why Flourishing? Justifying Educational Aims

Ideas about the nature and aims of education are often interrelated, as they are in assertions about real or true education. Much as Aristotle did, we may conceive of a true, proper, or just institution as one that serves or fulfills a function that defines its nature. One might say, as Martha Nussbaum has, that “Resistance to female education is increased when its proponents push for real education, by which I mean an overall empowerment of the woman” (Nussbaum 2003: 340, italics added). In this instance, as in Aristotle, real or proper education is determined not by how existing institutions do function but by a background theory of how they should function – in this case, to empower, create internal capabilities, or promote the development of attributes conducive to living well (Nussbaum 2003, 2011).

In seeking to justify claims about the aims of education, is there any alternative to relying on a background theory of justice? I shall argue there is not. The social scientific and conceptual alternatives do not work. They more or less assume that it is in the nature of education to have inherent purposes or aims that can be revealed through social science or the analysis of concepts that track reality.

An approach that was quite influential in sociology of education assumed that what determines an institution's true nature or defining function is its role in an existing social system. This is illustrated by the neo-Marxist educational sociology of the 1970s, which held that the failure of public schooling in the U.S. to create economic and social equality was not an accident but a product of its success in serving its actual function, which was to preserve forms of inequality required by a capitalist economy (Bowles & Gintis 1977). The underlying functionalist doctrine was that economic relationships are “primary” or determine the functions of other institutions, and those other “secondary” institutions – including educational institutions – have no independent power to shape any other institution (Baker 2014). The conservative spin on this doctrine is that the function of education is of course to serve the interests of the economy, and that it often fails or is inefficient by this measure. Functionalist models of educational systems have been largely supplanted by credentialist (e.g., Collins 1979) and neo-institutionalist (e.g., Baker 2014) alternatives, which view the development of educational systems as a product of the interests of the individuals involved, notably students’ and families’ interest in obtaining credentials that confer competitive advantage. These non-functionalist alternatives do not posit the existence of an inherent institutional function. Even if they did, it would not tell us what the function or purpose of educational systems should be. The ethical relevance of explanatory models of how educational systems function is simply to inform our understanding of what is possible and how what is desirable and possible is best achieved. 10

The ideas about educational aims offered by other social sciences are no more apt for defining or prioritizing educational purposes. An anthropological approach might be to regard educational institutions as ones that initiate the young into the practices and norms of a culture and community, while historical approaches might trace and contrast the varied ways in which different approaches to education have prepared differently situated students in different ways for different kinds of lives and social roles. The understanding of education these disciplines provide could be immensely helpful in ensuring we take less for granted about what is inevitable and desirable in education, but it would not dictate what we aspire to as a society or in our own educational endeavors. These are the questions fundamentally at stake: What should we aspire to achieve through education, collectively and individually? How do we succeed in this aspiration?

A different approach, predicated on conceptual analysis, reached its zenith shortly before neo-Marxist functionalist approaches did in the 1970s (Curren et al. 2003). Most influential in advancing this approach was R. S. (Richard) Peters, whose examination of the terms education, training, and conditioning led him to hold that education “involves essentially processes which intentionally transmit what is valuable in an intelligible and voluntary manner and which create in the learner a desire to achieve it,” the processes being initiation into forms of knowledge through which powers of mind are enhanced (Peters 2007 [1965]: 63; see Curren 2020c). 11 If we supposed that all this is really built into our word education and its counterparts in other languages and eras, what would it show? Would it tell us that transmitting forms of knowledge and enhancing powers of mind are the only aims consistent with the nature of education? What normative or ethical weight would it have? The answer to this question is that its normative weight would be merely linguistic. In itself, it would neither justify education so conceived nor disqualify alternatives to it. If we have good ethical reasons to prioritize initiating students into human practices that could be arenas of eudaimonic activity for them, and those practices include ones that do not qualify as forms of knowledge, all that Peters’ exercise in conceptual analysis could show is that our justified initiation of students into such non-epistemic practices could not properly be called educating, and the benefits would not qualify as aspects of an education. We should then, in deference to proper English usage, be required to call the initiation into human practices we are ethically justified in providing something else. We could invent a new word for it. Or another way to reform our linguistic practices would simply be to carry on with the word “education” and agree that the better schools we’re operating will count as educational institutions.

A Constructivist Alternative

Having eliminated some variations on the theme that educational institutions have inherent or natural aims, revealed by science or by distinctions of language that reveal the nature of things, I propose a constructivis t alternative – an approach that sets aside questions about true aims (or truths about educational aims) and focuses on what aims and ordering of aims we have reason to accept as authoritative in educational policy and practice. Aims of education are from this perspective “constructions of reason.”

The constructivist arguments of Kant and Rawls present us with thought experiments in which we adopt an impartial perspective on what we would choose to impose on ourselves collectively as rules of morality (Kant) or constitutional principles (Rawls), imaging that we know general truths about human beings and nothing specific about ourselves. 12 In Rawls's “Original Position” version of this, the general truths we can know include matters of scientific consensus (Rawls 1971, 2001). Adopting this methodology, we could ask not only what the principles regulating society's major institutions should be, but also how their functions or aims should be defined. I have argued that our general answer would be that the point of living in a society and having institutions would be to enable us to live well or flourish – from an impartial perspective, all of us, to the extent that is possible – and that we would recognize the need for institutions that enable individuals to develop the attributes that are conducive to living well (Curren 2013a, b; Curren & Metzger 2017: 72–86). It is reasonable to call these formative institutions educational, and it is not inconsistent with the ideal of free and equal citizenship in a pluralistic society (or Rawls's ground rules for what can be considered behind the “veil of ignorance”) to rely on central findings in SDT in arguing that the basic categories of attributes in question are capabilities, understanding, and virtues. 13 This is the basic outline of a constructivist argument for identifying flourishing or living well as the general aim of education and identifying the development of these forms of personal attributes as sub-aims. Given what is known about the foundational role of basic psychological needs and need-support in human development, well-being, and rewarding fulfillment of potential – i.e., flourishing – one could continue by working out the details of a need-focused account of educational justice. 14

How Can Education Promote Flourishing?

If the foregoing is correct, then an essential aspect of just societies is that they provide all children with educational institutions whose fundamental task is to prepare them to live well. Living well involves ongoing fulfillment of each of three basic forms of human potential – agentive, social, and productive – and enabling students to fulfill this potential involves the cultivation of associated capabilities, understanding, and virtues. Cultivating these attributes depends, in turn, on schools supporting the satisfaction of students’ basic psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Essential to the success of this enterprise is that students have pathways of opportunity within and beyond their schools and experience themselves as making progress along those pathways in living well (Curren 2020b, forthcoming). Without this, schools can neither justly expect nor reliably obtain students’ willing cooperation in the school's mission (Curren 2020a).

People are, of course, different in their strengths, inclinations, tastes, and backgrounds, and consequently different also in what they become good at and find personally rewarding. In order to experience the progress in their lives that is important to their present happiness and life prospects, they will need many and varied opportunities to discover what kinds of activities and pursuits can be eudaimonic for them. In simple terms, they need opportunities to discover what they can be good at and like doing. From the perspective of what makes for a meaningful life, this also involves opportunities to expand their horizons of value – opportunities for them to encounter and value the goods at stake in a vast and evolving world of human practices they might find meaningful. Experiencing competence, positive connection to others, and self-determination in devoting oneself to things that have value independent of oneself is what eudaimonic activities consist of, and having such experiences is what children most need in order to experience progress in their lives.

In order to provide the opportunities that students need to find their way in living well, schools must consequently set aside the notion that their mission is simply to equip students with “knowledge and skills” that are instrumentally useful to them outperforming each other and “getting ahead” in a quest for wealth and status. Since having materialistic values is demonstrably bad for people – leading to lower-quality personal relationships, lower personal well-being, and more health problems (Kasser, 2016; Ryan & Deci 2017) – educational leaders should systematically examine the values that permeate schools, define school missions that are not just about students getting ahead, reframe the value of education in less instrumental terms (see Brighouse 2005, 2008; Curren 2020b; de Ruyter 2007), and “teach happiness.” That is, they should provide direct instruction in the science and philosophy of wellbeing and related skills of self-care – knowledge of what is actually conducive to happiness, reflectiveness about what it would mean to live a good life oneself, and self-regulative capacities (Morris 2015; Seligman et al. 2009; Waters 2011).

Educational systems must also recognize that while students’ progress in living well involves strands of development and activities that will never be the basis of paid employment, a eudaimonically just society will involve fair terms of cooperation in enabling everyone to live well, to the extent this is possible. This necessarily involves educating students in ways that equip them to contribute to others being able to live well. It won’t always, or even the majority of the time, involve paid employment, but often it will, and students’ experience of progress in their lives will depend in part on seeing a financially viable path forward.

School leaders should define value-focused school missions with an eye to creating cooperative school communities that are eudaimonic – conducive to flourishing – and just in the opportunities they provide, their disciplinary practices, and their general treatment of students. The ideal of just school communities is an important one from the perspective of value acquisition, disciplinary policies, and the social life of schools – things that matter a great deal to the present well-being and life prospects of students, particularly those who struggle to meet academic and behavioral expectations. Elaborating this ideal from the standpoint of psychologically-informed eudaimonic justice is helpful to understanding how damaging exclusionary punishments of children are, and why and how schools should be more focused on nurturing students’ capacities of rational self-governance (Curren 2020a). Self-regulation and judgment are foundational to students fulfilling their agentive potential and living well, and they are built on more than disciplinary knowledge that usefully informs students’ understanding of the world (Curren 2014). Schools must structure learning in ways that promote ethical reflection and allow students to develop and exercise their own judgment, while acquiring the understanding essential to making their way in the world. Providing opportunities for students to use and develop their own judgment does not require giving students direct democratic control of schools, as Lawrence Kohlberg's original model of just school communities envisioned (Power 1988), but it should involve “enlisting students in taking responsibility for the school's success in ways that rely on their own developing judgment and satisfy their need for (bounded) autonomy” (Curren 2020a: 128).

Seriousness about students’ well-being and future flourishing would require more focus on the qualities of student engagement in activities of learning, and less on the acquisition of knowledge and skills per se. 15 The structuring of activities should provide choice, supporting students’ need for self-determination. It should optimize the level of difficulty to sustain growth while enabling students to experience themselves as competent most of the time. It should enable students to relate to others – teachers and peers – in ways that enable them to satisfy their need for positive connection. A eudaimonically just school community would nurture a partnership in learning involving shared authority and responsibility for the community's success in its mission to enable everyone in it to live well. No such partnership and mission can succeed unless teachers’ own needs and judgment are respected. This involves hiring teachers who are prepared to promote the flourishing of all students and giving them the space and support to experience the inherent rewards of excelling in this. 16


For generations, parents have made sacrifices in order to give their children a better future – a future in which they are successful and respected members of their communities, enjoying some security in the rewards this entails. They have needed to believe in a world of opportunity in which we can all live well for generations to come, if we all contribute to society in ways that sustain opportunities for others to live well. Today, as the ways we live have an impact on planetary systems that threaten to permanently diminish opportunities to live well in the future (Curren & Metzger 2017, 2019), it may seem ludicrous to suggest we should refocus education on enabling everyone to live well. How many people will have any serious prospect of flourishing? Shouldn’t we be preparing students for generation upon generation of sacrifices, just to stabilize the systems and institutions we have too long taken for granted? A concluding answer to this perfectly reasonable challenge is that focusing on what is actually essential to living well, instead of economic growth, is profoundly important. More people could be happier with less – living better, more flourishing lives, with less damaging impact – if we focused on what we actually need.

(Related Chapters: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 13, 14, 15, 16, 32, 34, 35.)


Valerie Tiberius emphasizes that well-being is a prudential concept, not an inherently moral one, in holding that “well-being in the broadest sense is what we have when our lives are going well for us, when we are living lives that are not necessarily morally good, but good for us” (Tiberius 2006: 493). This does not rule out the possibility – which many of us concerned with well-being believe to be actually the case – that moral qualities matter to our well-being, prudentially, in such a way that it is good for us and essential to our well-being that we possess and enact virtues in the activities of our lives. See, e.g., Foot 2001.

It is worth noting that this comprehensive or eudaimonic conception of well-being is sometimes seen as entailing a kind of completeness, such that a flourishing life is “lacking in nothing that would make it richer or better” (Nussbaum 2008: s90). The alternative I am recommending is more in line with Nussbaum's Capability Approach (CA) to justice in the promotion of human functioning consistent with living well (Nussbaum 2003, 2011), in taking all aspects of well-being to be ethically significant while understanding flourishing or living well as a threshold concept. On this view, individuals can be described as living well or flourishing if they are doing well in all relevant respects, even if they suffer misfortunes that diminish their happiness or lack things that might make their lives better.

See Vitterosø 2016b for a table of 41 descriptions of eudaimonia, where the elements of what I describe as typical appear repeatedly.

This is sometimes discussed in terms of a true or authentic self (e.g., Schlegel et al. 2013), but what is ethically and educationally important is respect for self-determination and providing sufficiently diverse opportunities for children to discover what they can be good at and find rewarding – what kinds of activities can be eudaimonic for them. This can be described quite accurately as involving a process of self-discovery, without invoking the concept of a true self. On the ethics of supporting children in this process of self-discovery essential to flourishing, see Curren 2020b.

Kristján Kristjánsson's definition of flourishing notably omits any reference to pleasure, satisfaction, or happiness, in taking flourishing to be “the (relatively) unencumbered, freely chosen and developmentally progressive activity of a meaningful (subjectively purposeful and objectively valuable) life that actualises satisfactorily an individual human being's natural capacities in areas of species-specific existential tasks at which human beings (as rational, social, moral and emotional agents) can most successfully excel” (Kristjánsson 2020: 1, 10). It is in this respect not a comprehensive conception of well-being and is less apt as an aim of education or concern of justice. For further work on the conceptualization of flourishing in philosophy of education, see de Ruyter 2004, 2007, 2015; de Ruyter & Wolbert 2020; Wolbert et al. 2015, 2018; Kristjánsson 2016. Harry Brighouse has argued that education should “aim to improve children's prospects for leading flourishing lives” (Brighouse 2008: 60), while declining to step into controversies surrounding the concept of flourishing. His approach relies on Richard Layard's (2005) “Big Seven” list of predictors of happiness as a proxy for antecedents of flourishing (Brighouse 2006, 2008: Brighouse et al. 2018), on the assumption that we have good evidence regarding what is conducive to happiness but “no direct evidence concerning what makes people flourish” (Brighouse 2008: 62). The use he makes of Layard's list (financial situation, family relationships, work, community and friends, health, personal freedom, and personal values; Layard 2005) nevertheless reveals an implicit understanding of flourishing as involving fulfillment of basic forms of human potential (e.g., social and creative) and values compatible with fulfilling those forms of potential well. The research in Self-Determination Theory (SDT) that is addressed later in this chapter does bear directly on what enables people to flourish, and Brighouse relies on it indirectly (regarding values or life goal orientations) through his references to a decade of SDT research summarized by SDT researcher Tim Kasser (Kasser 2002).

I am sidestepping some obvious complications here, such as the fact that teachers must frequently make decisions that balance the interests of some students against those of other students and must do so on the fly as situations in their classrooms unfold. The reference to ongoing sacrifice of an individual child's present well-being is meant to acknowledge this reality, while noting that ethically conscientious teachers would aim for equity over the long run, so that no student's near-term or long-term well-being was being sacrificed to that of others’ near-term or long-term well-being. Another complication pertains to discipline and punishment in educational contexts, and whether punishment that sacrifices a child's near-term or long-term well-being to that of other children could be justified. My position is that justifiable disciplinary policies would not have this effect; they would benefit the child disciplined as well as the school community generally (Curren 2020a).

On the related theme of self-esteem in education, see Ferkany (2008).

Following Foot (2001: 15), I use the term “Aristotelian necessities” to refer to necessities that must be fulfilled in order for a member of a species “to be as they should be, and to do that which they should do” in order to live well or flourish.

It would be similarly predictable that the antecedents of happiness that Brighouse has relied on as a proxy for antecedents of flourishing (Brighouse 2006, 2008; Brighouse et al. 2018) are related to happiness and flourishing (as defined in this chapter) in ways that are mediated by the satisfaction of these same psychological needs and fulfillment of related forms of potential.

Regarding what is possible, it is significant that neo-institutionalism is not wed to the view that educational systems are merely “secondary” institutions that have no independent power to shape society. David Baker argues that his fellow sociologists have been so fixated on the Industrial Revolution that they have failed to recognize we are in the midst of a global Educational Revolution that has radically transformed the world, including the nature of work (Baker 2014). Grasping this could be helpful to enacting meaningful educational reform in the service of human flourishing. See Curren (2017) and (forthcoming).

In using an example of conceptual analysis from Peters’ work I do not intend to be offering a critique of other arguments he made in defense of his conception of education as initiation into forms of knowledge. It would take us too far afield to examine those other arguments in order to supplement the argument I am making that what is required to justify claims about educational aims is ethical arguments. All I have the space for here is to eliminate two influential alternatives to ethical arguments.

See also Scanlon (1998), whose moral constructivism I briefly address in Curren & Ryan (2020).

If the approach these arguments yield is “perfectionistic,” it is a form of perfectionism consistent with liberal neutrality regarding a diversity of reasonable conceptions of the good. I argue in Curren (2022) that it is not “perfectionistic” in the anti-pluralistic sense in which this charge has been made by “hedonic” psychologists against SDT's eudaimonism.

Careful readers will grasp that on the resulting conception of the aims of education, schools that effectively advance these aims are good for children because they provide things that human children need, because they share a specific life form. The goodness of good schools will be, in an obvious sense, natural. This is correct, but it does not entail any requirement of morality or justice that schools provide what children need. Constructivism provides a bridge from what is good and bad to what is right and wrong, required as a matter of justice and forbidden.

It is an open question whether proper regard for students’ well-being requires systemic rethinking of curricula. See White (2011) for an argument that schools should abandon a curriculum of traditional school subjects in the interest of students’ well-being. A contrasting view is that a general education in some forms of disciplinary knowledge may be essential to acquiring the good judgment, grounded in understanding of the world, that is foundational to adult flourishing (Curren 2014).

I am grateful to Gina Schouten, Jason Blokhuis, Matt Ferkany, and Tony Laden for providing some very helpful editorial suggestions and comments on the penultimate draft of this chapter.


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