Flourishing would seem an obvious aim of education. To me it’s an indictment of our times that Kristján Kristjánsson felt he needed to write a lengthy book to justify this and that there needs to be a special department at the University of Birmingham, UK, to study and research this. I would hope that it would be obvious that flourishing should be the aim of education, but clearly not.
Kristján Kristjánsson is Professor of Character Education and Virtue Ethics Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham. He is not alone in thinking that flourishing should be the overall aim of education, but his perspective is unique. He attempts to bring a Neo-Aristotelian view to flourishing as the aim of education. In other words, he wants to bring Aristotle’s account of flourishing up to date.
For Aristotle flourishing is more than well-being. Kristjánsson agrees with this and spends some time explaining why flourishing cannot be equated with happiness, writing that it is possible for a person to be happy but not flourish, or a person to be unhappy and yet flourish.
For Aristotle certain external conditions need to be in place for flourishing. Some of these are:
- Close parental attachment and good upbringing/education
- Good government, ruling in the interests of the people, and a just constitution
- Enough wealth to make sure we do not come a cropper
- A complete life: namely a life in which we do not die prematurely
- Health, strength, and even minimal physical beauty
- Friends and family
I would question some of these, for example, a complete life, but we must remember that when Aristotle was writing people did not live to the age of 100 or beyond. For Kristjánsson, Aristotle’s account is not enough; for him we have to go beyond Aristotle’s attempts to describe what flourishing means, but he is concerned that the idea of flourishing can become ‘bland’ in educational accounts and has written (2021) ‘A threat of bland truisms hovers constantly over educational accounts of flourishing ….. The concept of flourishing becomes like a shopping trolley that everybody can fill with his or her random choice of goods.’ As such Kristjánsson attempts specificity in a long definition, which I have heard/seen described (I can’t remember where now) as reading like an insurance policy. This is Kristjánsson’s definition:
Human flourishing is 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, p.1)
Kristjánsson (2020, p.35) goes beyond Aristotle in suggesting that a flourishing education must involve
- Engagement with self-transcendent ideals and experiences of awe-filled enchantment
- Moral elevation
- A clear personal sense of meaning …
… but as mentioned above it does not have to be accompanied by subjective well-being and a person does not have to be fully virtuous to flourish.
This suggests to me that students need spiritual experiences in education in order to flourish. This seems to be supported by William Damon’s research (2008, cited by Kristjánsson on p.43) in which he found from surveying 1200 young people between the ages of 12 and 26, and interviewing a quarter of them in depth, that only 20% of them were fully purposeful. Approximately 25% were ‘dreamers’, about 30% were ‘dabblers’ and 25% were disengaged.
What can teachers do to support flourishing in education? Opinion on this is divided, with some thinking that teachers should become agents of social change, and others that this is not the job of teachers, and that instead they should be good role models. Can teachers do this without flourishing themselves? Do teachers have the necessary moral language and moral identity? Do teachers have meaning in their lives? Do they have a sense of purpose? Have they been adequately trained for this?
And what about a curriculum for flourishing? John White, 2011 (cited in Kristjánsson, p.32) thinks that we should tear up the curriculum and start again; we should not carve the curriculum up into discrete subjects but teach all subjects through themes, such as climate change. Kristjánsson’s view is not as radical as this, but he does think that flourishing should permeate the whole curriculum and influence every salient educational decision taken within the school. He also thinks that teachers should provide students with the space to have ‘peak experiences’ and expose them to the ideals of truth, beauty, and goodness. Students should be encouraged to keep an open mind and explore new ways of seeing (Kristjánsson, 2021).
This book was discussed by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network earlier this month. I don’t think I would have read it had it not been on their list, even though I fully agree that flourishing should be the overall aim of education. The book is very long and academic, and I wonder how many full-time working teachers would have the time to read it. Kristjánsson wants teachers to read it, as at the end of every chapter he has included a list of questions under the title ‘Food for thought for practitioners’. These questions are worth considering and discussing.
Our PhilofEd zoom meeting to discuss this book was introduced by Kenny Primrose who has recently completed his Masters in Character Education at the University of Birmingham with Kristján Kristjánsson as his tutor. Kenny posed three questions for the group:
- To what extent does Kristjánsson’s theory/view of flourishing provide a helpful and normative ideal for educators, when compared to other governing aims of education?
- How would an education system with flourishing as its core aim look different? (Chapter 2 includes radical proposals like White’s; does flourishing require a radically different approach politically, institutionally and pedagogically?)
- A significant difference in K’s theory from other Aristotelian ideas is the addition of experiences of awe/transcendence, which seek to enchant a fairly flat idea of flourishing. To what extent is this a realistic and fair aim for educators, and what would this entail?
I liked Kenny’s questions. For me they focussed on the main concerns for teachers whilst at the same time being broad enough for those who had not had the time or inclination to read the book to be able to join in the discussion. And given that it transpired that not one member of our small group (about six of us if I remember correctly) had enjoyed the book, there was still plenty of discussion. I am glad I engaged with the book. I think the work that Kristjánsson is doing has to be important. He has appealed to colleagues and readers (2021) to help move flourishing discourse forward in order to make it enrich educational policy and practice. I would appeal to him to make his work more accessible to every day full-time teachers.
Kristjánsson, K. (2020). Flourishing as the Aim of Education: A Neo-Aristotelian View. London: Routledge
Professor Kristján Kristjánsson: Four Accounts of Flourishing as the Aim of Education (2021)
Damon, W. (2008). The path to purpose: How young people find their calling in life. New York: Free Press.
White, J. (2011). Exploring well-being in schools: A guide to making children’s lives more fulfilling. London: Routledge.