Ragini Khurana is the programmes and communications intern with Restless Development’s India office. For International Youth Day, Restless Development India is looking at changing the narrow understanding of education in India as a tool for job-preparedness to a more robust, personal growth-oriented model.
A Happiness Curriculum was introduced by the state government of Delhi in all its schools in July last year. The main aim of the curriculum is to teach students from the age of 4 to 14 years old about mindfulness. As described by one of the people involved in designing the curriculum, mindfulness is a state of mind in which “you don’t experience drastic changes in emotions”. Through these classes, children are taught values such as gratitude, harmony, justice, love and respect, and most importantly, to manage their emotions.
The initiative has been widely appreciated for moving away from the traditional focus on examinations and marks and acknowledging the importance of mental health for students. In a country which has one of the highest student suicide rates in the world, it is not difficult to see why the Happiness Curriculum and its emphasis on mindfulness are being lauded as steps in the right direction.
Ragini with Youth Facilitator at YRC Delhi
And yet, as I read through the several articles extolling the curriculum, I felt increasingly uneasy about this idea of teaching students to manage their emotions from such an early age. I couldn’t find the exact curriculum or the teacher manuals online, but based on what one of the contributors described in her interview (referenced above), I feel that there is a huge problem with the underlying philosophy of teaching children to control and manage their emotions.
Consider anger, despite being widely regarded as one of the more anti-social, undesirable emotions, it is not an illegitimate emotional response. We usually feel angry when we perceive ourselves or others around us as being treated unjustly, and it can often spur us into taking action to change the unfair situation. This is not to say that anger always stems from a legitimate cause, or that it cannot manifest itself in extremely unhealthy and harmful ways.
My concern is that any educational programme that claims to teach emotional control amounts to a blanket policy of pre-emptively suppressing any heightened emotions that young people might feel, and thereby thwarting the degree of their engagement with their environment. Such a policy might be efficient at avoiding altercations and conflicts, but it is not desirable.
Our emotions, how we interpret them and how we engage with them are formative for our identities. These processes are influenced by our individual and group experiences and continue over the entirety of our lifetimes. They decide what we seek out and what we wish to avoid, they incite us to take action or make us turn away. I do not think that there can be a shortcut through the classroom to emotional maturity or understanding, and there shouldn’t be.
Robust emotional experiences, particularly during younger years, are essential for robust lives. In fact, what we need in a culture like India’s, where children and women are often expected to swallow anger, frustration and hurt and quietly obey those who know better, is increased encouragement for emotional expression. Not emotional management.
If our emotions become harmful for ourselves or others around, help and guidance should be forthcoming. But this help and guidance cannot be in the form of a centrally determined one-size-fits-all curriculum.
Advertisements in the Delhi metro celebrating the first anniversary of the Happiness Curriculum
The best that can be said about the Happiness Class is that despite its lofty aim of teaching students emotional management, it actually does not amount to much more than the harmless, moral education and leadership classes that most of us day-dreamed through in our school years. Testimonials used in adverts across the city indicate this is probably the case.
A girl on a poster in the metro says that she has become more confident after attending these classes, while two mothers claim that their children care for them much more since the classes started (the veracity of these testimonials is another point altogether). These benefits are practical and morally much less dubious than the aim of making students ‘mindful’.