Does School Cultivate Happiness?

‘What is the most important thing this year?’, asks Toshiro Kanamori, 4th Grade teacher at the Minami Kodetsuno Kanazawa Municipal primary school, north west of Tokyo. ‘Why are we here?’ The answer is the same: ‘To live a happy life,’ say the students in unison.

Who doesn’t want to live a happy life? Yet, happy is not the first thing that comes to mind when we think of students in North America, much less in Japan where the gruelling life of academia allows children three or four years of a carefree childhood before they are locked into an escalator education system which allows for little leisure time, depending on the track.

So what exactly does Mr. Kanamori mean by ‘happy’?

For these 9 and 10 year olds, learning to live a happy life begins with cultivating compassion toward their classmates. One of many lessons they are taught is that infringing on others happiness means they are preventing them from achieving their goal of being happy, and this is a big no-no in Mr. Kanamori’s class.

When bullying becomes an issue and no one fesses up to the crime, it becomes a multi-day ordeal. The discussion is not relegated to after school hours nor does in involve parents. Instead, it’s a topic which lives on with each each day it’s unresolved, and manages to put a subtle damper in the day. Meanwhile, a very determined Mr. Kanamori patiently waits for someone to admit they have any knowledge of what’s going on. Finally, on day three, the ordeal culminates in confessions and tears over lunch.

In another situation, Mr. Kanamori punishes a boy for being rambunctious and chatty while his classmates busily put the finishing touches on their home made rafts for the upcoming race. The boy is told he has not respected the teacher’s multiple warnings to quiet down and his punishment is to stay behind while his classmates go rafting. After lengthy protest from the other students, quietly yet firmly asserting that the punishment does not fit the crime, Mr. Kanamori agrees to let the boy participate, stating they were correct: the boy’s behaviour was inappropriate but the punishment was too severe for the crime.

Teachers are human too and they can be wrong. It is not inappropriate to challenge authority if you think their actions are questionable or especially if you believe they are outright wrong, even if the authority figure is your beloved and revered sensei.

The concept of distributed responsibility is a recurring theme. Students are taught to own up to their own mistakes, but if they see something amiss in their class and opt to do nothing, they are deemed equally as guilty as the culprit.

Mr. Kanamori reminds us of what we may have lost sight of when it comes to children and education. First and foremost, isn’t learning to be a good and productive human being priority number one?

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