Senechal: Delving Into John Stuart Mill With My Students

Diana Senechal writes on GothamSchools:

It was William Wordsworth’s poetry, among other things, that helped (John Stuart) Mill see beyond his despondency. His home education (though remarkably rich) had given meager attention to the inner life and the emotions. Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, in which Mill had been steeped, treated emotions as though they could be tallied by means of “felificic calculus” — that is, a method of calculating pains and pleasures. Over the years, Mill sought to synthesize his concern for the common good with his concern for the individual; one can view his treatise On Liberty as such a synthesis.

When I told my 11th-grade students about Mill’s intellectual crisis (before we began reading On Liberty), I sensed unusual interest in the room. They were looking up; some were nodding. When I read them part of Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” (which Mill mentions in his Autobiography), the room was hushed; later, in discussion, a few students spoke about what had moved them. Yet I walked away unsatisfied with the presentation; I knew that I had made slight errors and left out some subtle points. Still, I thought, this was a start.

She teaches at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering.

This is my life at school and outside — and despite its high demands, I enjoy it. I have nearly 270 students; I teach three high school philosophy courses, each of which meets twice a week. The 11th-graders are studying political philosophy and have read Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke; the 10th-graders have begun a unit on virtue and are reading the second book of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics; and the ninth-graders have been working with syllogisms, logical operators, and truth tables. Outside of class, much of my time goes into planning lessons and correcting homework; other chunks of time go to meetings and paperwork. Beyond this, I spend time with the philosophical works themselves, and find myself needing more time. I must not only know the material but be capable of interpreting it, even if I am “only” leading a discussion.

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If you like her writing, consider buying her book.

As for Mill and the 11th graders, here's something I'd recommend to them, as a counterweight to the concern that Bentham over-calculated feelings.

It's a blog called Quantified Self. Here is a sample:

Alex’s story: I can honestly say that mood tracking saved and transformed my life. I’ve battled depression off and on for twenty years, but tracking my mood every day for the past two and a half years has brought more positive change than I could have imagined when I started.

At Quantified Self, we ask people to tell their stories by answering three questions: What did you do? How did you do it? What did you learn?

What I did was to record my mood, one to eight times per day, whenever I felt like it.

How I did it was to write. A lot. Whatever was on my mind, from how the day went to processing painful experiences to celebrating insights. And, importantly, I shared what I was writing with a trusted friend, who was also sharing his mood with me. Knowing that someone was reading and listening to my posts helped me to be more gentle with myself and make faster progress.

More from Quantified Self:

Everyone feels happy, angry, anxious, and depressed sometimes. Mood changes are a normal part of everyday life, and some people can roll with them smoothly. For many, though, mood can be a challenging thing to manage. Depression affects about 121 million people worldwide, with many more going undiagnosed, and is the leading cause of disability. Anxiety disorders touch 16% of people globally at some point in their lives.

The question is, can tracking your mood improve your mood, or make life easier in some way? Is there any evidence of this beyond anecdotes like our stories above?

Well, yes, there is. People who live with Bipolar Disorder use mood tracking to understand and lessen the effects of their mood swings. When a change in mood is happening, it can be detected early to give them advance warning for some kind of intervention. Charting moods, in combination with other psychosocial strategies like cognitive behavioral therapy, has been shown to help people better regulate extreme moods.

Researchers also use mood tracking to predict different people’s response to a particular drug, to differentiate and diagnose different kinds of mood disorders, and to help doctors and therapists monitor their patients’ mood progression under the influence of different treatments.

Great, you say, so is this just for people with mood disorders, or will it help me be happier in my life? That’s an excellent question. The recent explosion of mood tracking apps with names like Track Your Happiness suggests that being more aware of your moods and what affects them can steer you towards greater happiness in life. The folks behind the app Mood Panda aggregated statistics from all of their global users in 2011 and looked for patterns. They discovered that work has the biggest influence on mood at a population level, and women are unhappy on Wednesdays. However, one can find any pattern in data if one looks closely enough. Well-designed longitudinal studies to test the effect of mood tracking as an intervention on overall mood have yet to be done.

An important thing to realize is that happiness is not necessarily the goal of mood tracking.

An excessive focus on happiness would seem to be almost disrespectful to the wide range of possible human emotions that lift us up, teach us, and make life rich and varied. A more thoughtful goal, or intention, or reason to try tracking mood, is simply to increase awareness.