The Paradox of Hedonism

The impulse toward pleasure can be self-defeating. We fail to attain pleasures if we deliberately seek them.

This is the essence of what the moral philosopher Henry Sidgwick in the The Methods of Ethics called the paradox of hedonism.

This came to mind as I was considering the necessity for all of us to be resourceful, self-sustaining learners for life. Learning doesn’t just stop when the class ends, or school is over and you grasp that diploma. The purpose is not gold stars, grades, admission to a particular college, trophies or triumph over others.

Children are naturally passionate learners and keeping that passion alive must be an aim of education. When education is reduced to set of narrow targets and goals then we have undercut that learning impulse.

Of course we want children to earn admission to the college of their choice. But that is not our aim. It is too shortsighted.

Our aim is to keep the flame of love of learning burning bright so that students are life-bound learners who attend college, not college-bound students whose love of learning has been eclipsed.

The paradox is that we achieve that aim – of college admissions – magnificently by keeping the focus on true learning and keeping that flame burning. If we are passionate learners for life then, as learners we will earn admission to school and college and will be able to benefit from the experience as part of a lifetime of learning.

If, however, we focus of the short-term goal and do whatever we can to achieve it at the expense of passion for learning – what Alfie Kohn calls “preparation H” with the H in this case standing for Harvard – then we will, in fact, have given up on true learning.

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