The Pursuit of Happiness

Elliot: The pursuit of happiness is an American tradition. I think it's good. Do you?
John: Yes.
Elliot: So, if a person pursues his happiness, we should be glad, in general.
John: Yes.
Elliot: So, if a child pursues his happiness, we should be glad, in general?
John: Sure. What are you getting at?
Elliot: Suppose a child finds that he's unhappy at school.
John: School is very important. Children need an education. This is an overriding concern.
Elliot: According to the pursuit of happiness tradition, it's good if the child pursues his happiness by no longer attending a school he dislikes. Correct?
John: Yes. But traditions can't be expected to be perfect, and educating children is a tradition too.
Elliot: Yes. So, you agree that forcing children to attend school violates the pursuit of happiness tradition. And you point out other traditions say otherwise. So in this case, there are contradicting traditions, right?
John: Right.
Elliot: So a very reasonable, normal person, who is not a radical, or a utopian, or anything like that — just an American patriot who cares about the pursuit of happiness — might have a strong wish to see that children do not have to go to school, and to find ways to make that approach successful. Right?
John: You can't expect children to always get what they want.
Elliot: The pursuit of happiness tradition says that all people, including children, can take steps to get more of what they want in their life. In this way they can become happier and improve. This does not involve expecting life to always be perfect.
John: OK, you're right. But a reasonable, normal person would have some other strong wishes, such as to see the children educated, right?
Elliot: Yes. Note the word "educated" there is pretty minimal. It's possible to be happy and successful without a high school education. Much harder without, say, learning to read, though still possible for certain lifestyles.
John: OK, but there are other things besides education that people, following reasonable traditions, want for children, and taken all together it's not so minimal.
Elliot: When two traditions, which you agree with, conflict, you can't just arbitrarily ignore one. Right?
John: Right.
Elliot: So, the pursuit of happiness concern must not be ignored. Right?
John: It's not ignored. Parents take steps to help their children be happy.
Elliot: The pursuit of happiness isn't about limited steps, it's about aiming for unlimited progress. The sky's the limit. Buying the kid a few toys and then making him spend eight hours a day being unhappy is not compatible with the pursuit of happiness.
John: OK, so what do you want?
Elliot: I want people to never ignore important traditions, which they rightly value in general, just in order to hurt children.
John: How is it possible to do this, but also to follow other traditions like helping children grow up and become educated adults and productive members of society?
Elliot: Have you tried to look for ways it's possible?
John: I don't see any way.
Elliot: But have you tried? Have you made an effort?
John: Lots of people have tried without success. Why should I work on this crazy pipe dream?
Elliot: Do you care about the pursuit of happiness, or not? Isn't it worth making an effort for that reason?
John: Fine.
Elliot: Why do you only go along with the pursuit of happiness grudgingly in the case of children?
John: It feels like you're trying to use it as a bludgeon to force me to do things I don't want to.
Elliot: But why don't you want to?
John: For reasons unrelated to the pursuit of happiness.
Elliot: And when you see your other reasons contradict the pursuit of happiness, why are you so willing to respond by throwing out the pursuit of happiness for children?
John: Look, children don't even know what they want or like or dislike. Does it even make sense to say they are happy or not?
Elliot: Are you sure you want to say that? Have you thought it through carefully? Have you fleshed it out? Have you thought about the consequences for the pursuit of happiness, in general, if it's amended to exclude people whom you consider to have bad judgment about what makes them happy?
John: You tell me what to think, then.
Elliot: It's possible to follow all good, important traditions. I don't think good, true things can contradict each other. We only need to throw out or ignore a tradition when it's bad for some reason. In those cases, we can give a criticism of it. We should never ignore a tradition which we have no criticism of in some cases at our whim. I don't have any criticism of the pursuit of happiness tradition, and I don't think you do either.
John: My only criticism would be that it is unrealistic in the case of children.
Elliot: Have you tried to think of criticisms of the other traditions involved? When there's a conflict, we should look for flaws on both sides, right?
John: Of course I've tried.
Elliot: Are you sure? What did you think of that didn't work out? How much did you think about it? Can you tell me a summary of what you know about it?
John: Now you're asking for a lot.
Elliot: Why is that a lot?
John: I couldn't tell you all that for many things.
Elliot: Why not? Don't you think about things in detail?
John: I don't know. You seem to have very high standards.
Elliot: I aim to set standards at the right level. If a certain standard works, and anything less will fail, then it's in the right place. Does that make sense?
John: Yes. What will go wrong if this standard isn't met?
Elliot: If things aren't thought about as carefully as I was saying, then the truth won't be found. Mistakes will be made, and not discovered.
John: There is no way to be perfect and find every mistake.
Elliot: Yes, but some ways of life are effective at finding mistakes. Not perfect, but they do a good job. Others are ineffective and reliably fail.
John: So if I have two ideas, and they contradict each other, I have to think out in depth ways both ideas might be mistaken, and think about what the situation is, and be able to summarize what I know, or I will make a lot of mistakes?
Elliot: Yes. Doing those things is how errors are eliminated. How would you find out about mistakes and correct them without doing that?
John: By noticing mistakes.
Elliot: You mean noticing obvious mistakes, and no others?
John: Sometimes I notice mistakes and other people don't. They weren't obvious.
Elliot: OK. So, do you think having all your mistake noticing be done unconsciously is effective?
John: Is it possible that it would be?
Elliot: Sure, if the unconscious process corresponds to what I describe, then it'd work. But does yours? And even if it mostly did, you could improve how well you find and eliminate errors by taking additional, conscious steps, too.
John: Alright, you have a point. Let's get back on topic.
Elliot: What traditions, specifically, require children to attend school?
John: They need to learn to read. Literacy is a tradition.
Elliot: Some children never attend school but nevertheless learn to read.
John: Does that work reliably?
Elliot: Does school work reliably?
John: Yes.
Elliot: Have you heard news stories saying that our schools are failing our children and many are years behind where they should be in terms of literacy, if they can read at all?
John: I guess I've heard some of those. Education is hard and the school are doing their best, but need more funding and better teachers.
Elliot: So why did you assume that schools teach literacy better than alternatives?
John: That's what they are for.
Elliot: The original issue was that some children are unhappy at school. Doesn't this suggest that we should rethink whether schools are actually doing what they are supposed to do?
John: Good point. Why didn't I think of that?
Elliot: I don't know. But if you met my "high standards" from earlier, then I think you would have thought of it.
John: What if schools were doing what they are supposed to?
Elliot: In this hypothetical, are any children unhappy at school?
John: Yes. That's natural and not going to change, don't you think?
Elliot: No, I don't think unhappiness is natural. I think we can pursue unlimited happiness.
John: Then why don't you design a school that will make all the children happy?
Elliot: I can't imagine a school like that either. Schools do things to children against their will. That's a fundamental part of what they are. And that is incompatible with the children freely pursuing their own happiness.
John: What does a school do against a child's will?
Elliot: To begin, tests, homework, attendance, graded assignments. Those are all requirements, whether the child likes it or not.
John: Because they are necessary to education.
Elliot: Whether that is is a good justification or not, they contradict the child freely pursuing his own happiness, unless they are all fully optional, correct?
John: Fine, correct.
Elliot: And we're going to try to considering that it may not be the pursuit of happiness principle causing the problem, OK?
John: OK.
Elliot: So, why are tests necessary?
John: To see if the child learned the material or not.
Elliot: And why do you need to know that?
John: To help him if he's falling behind.
Elliot: Why can't he ask for help, if he judges he's falling behind and wants help?
John: Sometimes children don't know they are falling behind. Their test scores will let them know.
Elliot: So, why can't the tests be optional, and children who aren't sure if they are falling behind, and who want to find out, can take them voluntarily?
John: Very few kids would take tests, then.
Elliot: You're saying very few kids find tests make them happy?
John: I guess. Yeah. Tests kind of suck, but they are needed.
Elliot: If tests are necessary to help children, why do they make children unhappy? Why aren't the children glad?
John: They are stupid, I guess.
Elliot: I think the tests aren't necessary or helpful. What they really test is whether the child formed the opinions the teacher told him to form and memorized the facts the teacher considers important.
John: I disagree.
Elliot: Do you have a factual criticism of what I said?
John: Well, tests aren't perfect, but what they are trying to measure is if the child understands things well.
Elliot: Aren't they graded not by whether the answers are true, but instead by whether the answers match the teacher's answer key?
John: Are you saying that teachers having false ideas is a big problem?
Elliot: Yes, it is.
John: And children have better ideas? Or what?
Elliot: All educators have some false ideas. A rational educational system would focus a lot of its effort on error elimination: on making sure false ideas in the educators are not passed on to the children. Teachers having false ideas is a serious issue which schools ignore.
John: What would schools need to do to stop ignoring it?
Elliot: They could let children freely form their own opinions about what subjects are interesting or important, which ideas worth remembering, which ideas are true, and so on. And stop testing for how well the children's conclusions match a set curriculum.
John: Say the curriculum has some errors. Won't most new approaches have more errors?
Elliot: If schools taught what we know about how to avoid errors, perhaps children would like them better. Now, about those tests, you said that you disagreed with me. Will you reconsider?
John: What if the children are lazy? Don't tests make them keep up instead of doing nothing?
Elliot: Making people do things is incompatible with them freely pursuing their own happiness, right?
John: It's for a good cause.
Elliot: That may be, but making people do things is incompatible with them freely pursuing their own happiness, right?
John: Children might misuse freedom.
Elliot: They might. But making people do things is incompatible with them freely pursuing their own happiness, right?
John: Fine. Right.
Elliot: Adults might misuse freedom, or choose to be lazy, but the pursuit of happiness tradition says that's their choice and it's not my place to intervene in someone else's life without his consent. I live my way, and he gets to live his way. Why are these arguments any better when applied to children than with adults?
John: OK, it contradicts the pursuit of happiness. It's not an exception. But can't we say that the opposite way, too? That the pursuit of happiness contradicts school, which is itself a valuable tradition.
Elliot: "School" is a bit vague. Can you provide a specific tradition, which is good and valuable, which school pursues and the pursuit of happiness contradicts?
John: Making children take tests is a tradition. How about that?
Elliot: The test tradition assumes that people have to be forced to learn things by outside pressure, such as facing a test soon. But if something is good, and learning it would benefit a person, why won't he learn it without being forced? Why won't he learn it as part of the pursuit of his own happiness? The test tradition has no answer to this argument, so it's false.
John: The answer is because learning is hard, and people don't always do what's in their long term interest.
Elliot: Isn't that an all purpose justification of tyranny? And one you would hate to see applied to adults? For example, would you want the Government to decide which adults were not pursuing their long term interest, and to send them to reeducation camps?
John: Isn't that a bit extreme? We're just talking about schooling children, not camps.
Elliot: What's the difference, exactly?
John: They're children for crying out loud.
Elliot: Do you think that's a rational argument?
John: How am I supposed to argue with someone who doesn't know the obvious?
Elliot: Do you think things that feel obvious to you are always true?
John: No.
Elliot: Do you have an argument, then?
John: No.
Elliot: Do you have any criticism of the pursuit of happiness tradition?
John: No.
Elliot: Are you going to change your mind?
John: No. For the sake of the children.
Elliot: Do you think that a final appeal to caring for children is appropriate when my entire position is that children should pursue happiness, and your position is that they shouldn't be allowed to?
John: That's not what I meant.
Elliot: What did you mean?
John: Go away.
By Elliot Temple, Feb 2010 |

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