Fearful learning

Fear…is an inconstant sadness, which has also arisen from the image of a doubtful thing (pp. 81, P18, Schol. 2)

Fear is an inconstant sadness, born of the idea of a future or past thing whose outcome we to some extent doubt. (pp. 106, D. XIII)

P63: He who is guided by fear, and does good to avoid evil, is not guided by reason. (pp. 149, IV. P63)

I would like to argue that schools have increasingly become institutions which have nurtured “fear” in the Spinozist definition of the word.

The Student’s Perspective of Fear

Let’s start with the students’ experience of school. Many students become quickly aware that they are being judged when they enter the school environment, often by measures which they don’t fully understand. In their very early schooling, many children are simply unaware that school is a place where “work” or, as it less commonly labelled by teachers, “learning”, happens. They are told to behave very differently in school from the ways in which they behave at home; the way they are grouped with other children is naturally very different, as are things like going to the toilet and eating. The school regulates the child in different ways from that of the home environment. Gradually, the child becomes aware that what he/she is doing is being “ranked” or “judged” in a number of different ways which he/she will inevitably not adequately understand and which, unlike many situations outside school, do not have consequences. For example, if a child laughs or talks in a way which is deemed “inappropriate” for the school setting, he/she may well be told off. The child quickly learns to internalise these rules, but I would like to argue that much of the time this process of internalisation produces an “inconstant sadness” because the child inevitably will not have a definite “idea” of what the consequences of obeying or disobeying these rules will be; the “outcome” of one’s education is always, to a certain extent, “in doubt”. Education is necessarily a “meritocratic” exercise, whereby learners “discover” or “construct” their talents, inclinations, desires within the given parameters of the system and the whole point of it is that once starting out, you never quite know where it will “end”. The learner never quite knows what he/she will “become”. There is inevitably a “vacillation of mind” which will produce “an inconstant sadness, born of the idea of a future…thing whose outcome we to some extent doubt.” The learner never quite knows that he/she will succeed in the way he/she might wish. This seems to me to be the “very ground” of education and there is nothing that can done about this.

However, piled on top of this fundamental fear are many others which “local conditions” produce. Let’s start with the institutional structures which produce fear. If a learner is in a system which is insistently “testing” a child’s abilities, this will inevitably create fear, particularly if these tests are deemed to be very important. Many students quickly learn to find self-esteem in how well they do at school and will feel fear if they worry that they will do badly in a test. If students are being tested all the time in many different ways, then the system will inevitably produce the affect of fear on a more or less constant basis.

But is this a good or a bad thing? There are a few points to be made here.

First, a Spinozist pedagogue might argue that one would want to create a system which nurtured adequate ideas about “fear” in order to increase students’ powers of action. So, in this sense, it is not so much that a child is being tested, but it is the way the child learns to think adequately about the “fear” which is important. In my experience as a teacher, I have not felt I have encouraged my students to adequately think about their “fears”. In fact, I have probably only discussed students’ fears about the outcomes of their education on a handful of occasions. A Spinozist pedagogy I think would insist that all learners think in depth about the nature of their fears: the forces which have produced it.

Second, with so many “fear” being generated, a Spinozist pedagogue might well argue that overall such a system is more likely to produce “passionate” modes of thinking rather than active ones. Learners are constantly being buffeted around by the affect of fear which is enshrined in the system.

The above diagram attempts to show a Spinozist critique of the education system viewing it from the affect of “fear”. At the bottom is the fundamental point that the notion of education in a modern society creates “doubtful outcomes”; few learners know what will happen both in the long-term and short-term. Assessment regimes which are high-stakes will inevitably produce more fear because outcomes will become even more doubtful. This testing will affect self-esteem because many learner’s sense of themselves will be entwined with how they are being assessed. Narrow assessment regimes which, in the minds of the learners, arbitrarily attach a number to someone’s “achievements” will pile on more fear and “aversion” in the Spinozist sense of the word.


My Own Experiences as a Pupil


I have a distinct memory of not being aware that the spelling tests I was doing at school carried with them any affect of fear. I was not doing “too well” in them, and not being worried about this, until one day I told my mother that my score in a test. She was furious, and told me that I had to learn the spellings at home, which I began to do. You could argue that my mother gave me an adequate idea of what it meant not to be a good “speller” in our culture. Provoked by fear, I “increased my powers of action” and learnt the spellings, doing much better in the future tests, and began to gain a real sense of self-esteem from doing well in them. This lesson never left me; motivated initially by fear and a desire to please my mother, and then myself, I continued to revise hard for future tests. But the tests at secondary school often had outcomes which were much more doubtful than the spelling tests, and, as a result, my fear was greater about doing badly in them. I began so habituated to feelings of fear being attached to the tests that I learnt to live with my fear, expecting it as a matter of course, and worrying if I did not feel fear. I saw, incorrectly I think, as a “key motivator” to do well. However, when I analyse my success at school, I realise that I began revising well before I started to feel fear about how I might do in a test. The memory of the fear motivated me to revise well ahead of time; I wanted to gain mastery over this affect and therefore revised hard. The affect I did not want to feel was that of “failure” but possibly more powerfully, I wanted to feel the affect of success. Having achieved success with my spelling tests after revising, this positive feeling ultimately motivated me to revise for my other tests. So while I may have felt that fear motivated me, it did not. Rather it was the memory of the fear, the avoidance of the affect of failure, and most importantly a striving for the joyful affect of success which motivated me, in part, to work hard. This said, the subjects I did best in were those I had an intrinsic intellectual interest in; my striving to know some form of truth made me work above and beyond that which I would have done if I had only been motivated by these affects. From this, I would say that “fear of failure” did motivate me to work, but only partially, and it certainly was not enough to motivate me to do my very best.

A Teacher’s Perspective of Fear


One thing that struck me as I progressed with my teaching career was that fear seemed to dog me at every corner. I couldn’t really work out why this was? Was it something inherent in me? Or was it the school I was in? Or was it the actual system itself that was producing this affect? Having been a full-time lecturer at a university for over six months, I realise now that it was the system. I don’t have the feelings of fear that I used to have when in school. Why is this?

In a Spinozist sense, there was still the issue of “doubtful outcomes” in my professional life, and quite serious ones. In particular, my job security is not 100%; at the moment of writing, the government seem to want to shut down the course I teach on. But weirdly, I don’t feel the kind of fear I felt in school when my job was more secure.

I think the reason is that I feel much the victim of forces which are more or less totally out of my control. The English school system currently tries to make teachers directly accountable for their students’ results. But I found that the results my classes have got have varied very wildly from year to year, from class to class, from pupil to pupil. While there are always your “sure-fire winners” – students who obviously will do well in an exam – these are few and far between, and the vast majority of students can do exceptionally well or quite badly in a test depending upon the time of day they’ve taken it, what has been happening before they’ve taken the test, how much they’ve been supported at home, how they are feeling etc. etc.. In other words, a teacher’s results are often very unpredictable. It is this issue combined with the fact that such emphasis is put on test results at all levels which generates the “affect of fear” in the system for me. And this fear infects every part of the institution, buffeting teachers in all sorts of hidden ways. The reason why I feel I know this is because I am now in a job where there is much less emphasis upon judging whether I am an adequate teacher or not based on very unpredictable outcomes. The feeling is really quite striking. The fear has gone, and now I am surprised that I lived with it for so many years.


Learning, hate and humility

Hate is a sadness, accompanied by the idea of an external cause (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 106, DVII)

There are so many “ideas of external causes” in the education system that it is probably no surprise that many sadnesses “accompany” them. For Spinoza, sadness is simply a decrease in one’s powers of action and so it embraces all the “negative” affects – if we can call them that. But it should be noted that Spinoza is not an “affective” prescriptivist; he does not say that we should be feeling a certain way. He does not advise against feeling “sadness” or any other affect. Moreover, he points out that any sadnesses that we feel are “necessary” in the sense that we are the inevitable recipients of them; they “act upon” us in the way all “passions” do. It is part of the pedagogue’s job to give the learner an adequate idea of them. This is particularly true of “hate” which is such an all-encompassing passion; it is closely related to “love” because both are affects which accompany the idea of an external cause. I think it is particularly important to consider certain external causes which may cause people in the education system to accompany their sad ideas with them.

Students and hate

Many students say they hate school. The whole system becomes their focus for sadness. As we have already seen, this may be because their “habitus” just does not fit in with the over-riding habitus of the system, and as a result, they hate many things about school: the nature of the lessons, the voices and bodies of the teachers, the instructions they receive, the powerlessness they feel. I have seen this happen in a few cases, but more often than not though, a particular incident or person triggers the hatred. This could be because they don’t like a particular teacher, subject or student. In my experience, the nature of the hatred is usually “human focused”. Usually, students feel that a key player in the system does not like them, and has “got it in for them”. We will look at the nature of these types of “fear” later, but here it is important to note that an effect of this kind of fear is burgeoning hatred for other things associated with school. Things that they treated with disdain or even love/joy now become external causes for hatred.

This diagram shows the factors that come into play when a student feels hate at school. Fear (which will be dealt with later) is linked to hate: fear of failure, fear of being humiliated, fear of physical/verbal violence etc. This fear then can affect a students’ mind in many other ways in that he/she looks for external causes for their sadness. Their powers of action have been decreased and they no longer feel joy in the things that they used to enjoy, and may well hate these things because they blame them in some way. For example, if they are being bullied they may well blame a friend who was a source of joy for not being supportive enough etc., and then hate them. The things that they disdain may well become ideas of external causes of sadness because they notice them now in this heightened affective state of fear. For example, the affect of finding certain lessons difficult or boring may well become a species of hate because they blame these things for the way they are feeling, which, of course, they don’t have an adequate understanding of.

Journey into Joy

When have you felt hate at school? What was the “accompanying external cause” in your view?

Teachers and hate

I have noticed that teachers tend to be more political in the way they focus their hatred. So, for example, many teachers hate the government for imposing endless new changes to exams, curriculum, assessment procedures, and curriculum etc. These teachers feel “acted upon”, passive recipients of pointless policies, and, as a result, they feel sadness, accompanied by the idea of the external cause of the government. Their feelings of hate are clearly related to their feelings of powerlessness. Perhaps more commonly, certain figures within a particular institution may become foci for hate, particularly other teachers who are perceived to be “bossing” people around unreasonably, possibly exhibiting bullying behaviour. Over the years, I have come across many teachers who have hated other members of staff, regularly coming up with comments like “I’d like to stab his eyes out”, “He is the most pathetic person I’ve ever met”. This discourse of hate pervades staffrooms in a whispering, covert fashion up and down the country, and possibly across the globe.

I would like to argue that this affect of hate is an inadequate idea which has been produced by a number of accompanying causes, and that it is in the interests of teachers to understand these causes before focusing their hate upon a particular person. Spinoza’s philosophy necessitates for us to gain an adequate idea of the affect of hate; to understand its multiple sources. I think in an atmosphere where jobs are insecure, where teachers’ authority is constantly contested, where teachers are judged by arbitrary benchmarks etc,, then the affect of hate is much more likely to be produced by an educational institution.

Journey into Joy

Why do you think teachers hate other colleagues? What is really going on here?

Learning and Aversion

Aversion is a sadness accompanied by the idea of something which is the accidental cause of sadness (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 106, D. IX)

 The affect of “aversion” afflicts many classrooms. Let’s start with the students. Many students may not “hate” a subject in that they explicitly blame it in their minds for being the direct cause of their sadness, but they may well feel that for accidental reasons, they don’t a subject. A very common phrase I’ve heard in my career is “I just don’t like it – it’s boring”. For me, these phrases are informed by the affect of aversion, rather than hatred; many students feel that for “random” reasons they don’t understand they don’t like a subject. This lessens the affect of sadness. Many children feel that they don’t adequately understand the reasons why they are learning something, and in this sense they feel aversion because they feel that they are learning things for “accidental” reasons: they just happen to have strayed upon this teacher who insists upon teaching these pointless things, when they might be learning something more interesting. Teachers try to compensate for this by saying that they are learning something for an exam, but children then feel that they are the victims of a “random” exam system. This is at the heart of many students’ ressentiment; they constantly subjected to be bombarded with random terms, facts, tasks.

Similarly, teachers may well not like teaching a class or a topic for “accidental” reasons. For example, they have to teach a class in a particular room which is cramped, or too hot/cold etc., and this makes them feel an aversion for the class which they feel is “accidental”. I think it’s interesting to note in my own case that this means my feelings of sadness are not so strong as they might have been if I had blamed the students themselves for my feelings.

I found as my career progressed, I developed an aversion for Parents’ Evenings, something which I had not felt at the beginning of my career. I think this was for a number of reasons. I think Parents’ Evenings had become much more “high stakes” affairs, with parents much more likely to blame the teacher if their child was doing badly. I also felt aversion because these Parents’ Evenings were at the end of a long day of teaching, and I wanted to go home, but would have to talk to parents for three hours or so, before the long trek home.

Journey into Joy

When have you felt that you’ve been forced to learn random facts/terms/topics? What things do you feel an aversion towards?


Humility is a sadness born of the fact that a man consider his own lack of power, or weakness. (pp. 108, D. XXVI)

The “affect” of humility is very different from having an adequate idea of what “humility” is. Schools are constantly  casting its actors in roles which necessitate the affect of humility. The student has to feel humility much of the time because he/she knows that he/she has very little power; he/she has to attend school, and has little choice about what he/she learns. These power structures bred the affect of humility.

It’s strange as a teacher that I have felt the affect of humility many times. This is particularly the case when dealing with senior managers: headteachers, deputy heads, heads of department etc.. They have made me aware of my own lack of power: I have to follow their guidance, their advice whatever I might think of them. Instead of getting angry, I have found that the affect of humility has furthered my career with these people of worldly power; it’s conveyed in the way you accept what your superior says to you, the sincere nod of the head, the diligent way you follow their orders, the way you pay attention.

Journey into Joy

When have you felt humility in your life? What sorts of people have produced the affect of humility in you?

Learning, joy and desire: hope, confidence and fear

Learning, Joy and Desire

P53: When the mind consider itself and its power of acting, it rejoices, and does so the more, the more distinctly it imagines itself and its power of acting…Cor.: This joy is more and more encouraged the more the man imagines himself to be praised by others. (p. 98)

Spinoza is a wonderful philosopher for a teacher to explore in depth because he reveals the complexities of the role joy plays in learning. First, it is important to understand that joy can be both a concept – an affect which increases the learner’s power of action — and a “passion” – an affect which means the learner is “acted upon”. Joy can nurture an “illusory” state of mind as we see in P53 in that the mind can “imagine” its own “power of acting”; in other words, the mind not have an adequate idea of its own powers of action, and be deceived that it is “acting” when it is not. Nevertheless, the mind will feel joy. This has important implications for the pedagogue because it means that Spinoza is not saying that teachers should nurture “joy” willy-nilly, but should create the conditions whereby “adequate ideas” can be conceived and this will mean that joy will be nurtured necessarily. As Spinoza says in P53, if a man “imagines himself to be praised by others” he will be “more and more encouraged” to feel joy, but this affect will be a “passion”; he will be “being acted upon” and may not have any adequate ideas whatsoever. Teachers need to be mindful of this; while praising their students may well inculcate joy, this may not be nurturing adequate learning at all, but rather trapping students in the first realm of knowledge, which is “imagination”, rather than encouraging them to use reason.

It is only when the learner “reasons” that he/she will cease to be a victim of the passion of joy, and will conceive of it as a “power of the mind”. In P58, Spinoza writes:

Apart from the joy and desire which are passions, there are other affects of joy and desire which are related to us insofar as we act. Dem.: When the mind conceives itself and its power of acting, it rejoices (by P53). But the mind necessarily considers itself when it conceives a true, or adequate, idea (by IIP43). But the mind conceives some adequate ideas (by IIP40S2). There, it also rejoices insofar as it conceives adequate ideas, that is (P1), insofar as it acts. (p. 102)

So, a teacher could help their students feel joy in their learning but this may well be a “fool’s paradise” because they are simply “imagining” their own powers of action. For example, a teacher may well praise their students and make them feel happy, but actually they are not learning anything of substance; they are not conceiving adequate ideas. To learn properly, leaners need to be cognitively challenged. They need to know things that they did not know before. This means that they will necessarily find what they are studying difficult; they will need to strive to learn more about it, and be “tenacious” in their pursuit of the knowledge, striving from the dictate of reason to preserve their being by conceiving that the object of learning is intrinsically worth studying “in itself”, that it is an “expression of God’s power”. The conception of evolving adequate ideas about the object of learning will necessarily mean an increase in their powers of action within that realm of knowledge and therefore bring a degree of joy. As Vygotsky argues, it is only when learners are cognitively challenged that they conceive of new concepts. (S. Lutz, W. Huittz, 2004)

For Spinoza though, the only affects which are increase the mind’s power of action are joy and desire; this is because “by sadness we understand the fact that the mind’s power of acting is diminished or restrained (by P11 and P11S)” (pp. 102, P59 Dem). This is significant because it suggests that if there is a significant affect of sadness in a classroom, it will be difficult for students to conceive of adequate ideas and therefore learn in a significant fashion.

From this, we can construct the ways in which a teacher can assist with helping their students conceive of adequate ideas.

This diagram illustrates what an adequate idea of learning might look like. At the bottom, the learner feels the desire to be challenged and to use his/her reason and tenacity to conceive of an adequate idea of what he/she is learning, and this will necessarily lead to an increase in their powers of acting. But I would like to argue that “joy” needs to present in some shape or form in order for the learner to be able to be tenacious and to take the “object of learning” seriously. I don’t think there is a significant chance of the learner tackling a difficult topic if he/she does not feel in some sense that their “power”.

Joyful Learning

P56: There are as many species of joy, sadness, and desire, and consequently of each affect composed of these (like vacillation of mind) or derived from them (like love, hate, hope, fear etc.), as there are species of objects by which we are affected. (p. 100)

Spinoza does not have a “one-size-fits-all” view of the affects. As we see in P56, there are a multitude, possibly infinity, of species of joy, sadness and desire. This is important for the teacher to realise because he/she should not be looking for definite “indicators” or benchmarks of the affects. I don’t think they can be quantified and measured in this way; it’s more of a question of the teacher using their powers of “reason” to gain an “adequate idea” of the species of affect that are informing a learner’s approach.

Love is a joy, accompanied by the idea of an external cause (pp. 105, DVI)

The teacher should consider the ways in which they might make their object of learning a joyful object so that they might inculcate the affect of love within their students towards that object. The most significant way they could do this is by helping their students conceive a love of learning itself. That is help their students love the processes of learning. There is a great deal of evidence that shows when learners become aware of the way they learn, they become more effective learners. A Spinozist pedagogy would take things a step further and would explicitly nurture a love of the learning processes by helping learners conceive of adequate ideas of the way they learn.

Journey into Joy

How do you learn? When have you most enjoyed learning? Are there common learning processes

Learning and Devotion

Devotion is a love of one whom we wonder at (pp. 106, D. X)

A Spinozist pedagogue would try and steer a learner away from the affect of “devotion” because as was pointed out before, “wonder” is an “imagination” of a thing we don’t have an adequate idea of. As has been argued, a central tenet of a Spinozist pedagogy would be to help the learner see the “holism” of knowledge.

Journey into Joy

What things or people are you devoted to in the Spinozist sense? Why do you think you feel this way?

Learning, Self-Love and over-estimation

Overestimation is thinking more highly of someone than is just, out of love. (pp. 107, D. XXI)

There are a number of points to consider about Spinoza’s conception of “over-estimation” in the educational context. I am particularly interested in the ways in which institutions, acting as “bodies” in their rights, can “over-estimate” themselves. So, for example, schools which attain high rankings in the school league tables may well “over-estimate” themselves, thinking more highly of themselves than is just. To explain, the results of the students may well be due to a host of other factors other than the school’s input – the educational, social, economic background of the students for example – and yet the school will take “credit” for the school’s “great results”, and thus “over-estimating” itself. I have seen this happen from personal experience; schools, as a collective body, pat themselves on the back for their “great results” and actually do not address key issues that need to be addressed.

Equally, the hierarchical structures of educational institutions can lead to people over-estimating others. The classic example of this is a student falling in love with teacher and chronically over-estimating that teacher’s powers. Teachers are in a position where the affect of over-estimation is constantly at play because of the power imbalance between students and teachers.

There is also the “over-estimation” of oneself within the educational context. I think this is very important to consider. Spinoza defines “self-love” or “self-esteem as:

joy arising from considering ourselves. And since this is renewed as a man considers his virtues, or his power of acting, it also happens that everyone is anxious to tell his own deeds, and show off his powers, both of body and of mind and that men, for this reason, are troublesome to one another. From this it follows, again, that men are by nature envious (see P24S and P32S), or are glad of their equals’ weakness and saddened by their equals’ virtue. (pp. 98-99).

Taking this into account, we can see why educational institutions can become breeding grounds for the affects of self-love and envy. Both students and teachers are constantly being given chances to “consider” their own “virtues” in that they are being given feedback on their work, grades based on their work, and opportunities to consider how well they have performed in a whole host of subjects and situations, both formal and informal. In this sense, we can see how schools are almost “machines” for generating chances to feel “self-love” and “envy”: the very mechanism of the institution produces constant opportunities for teachers and students to reflect upon their own virtues or achievements. But a Spinozist pedagogy would have to point out that these forms of self-love and envy will necessarily produce inadequate conceptions of ourselves. This is because our sense of identity as autonomous agents will be false. For example, if a student attains a high mark in an exam, he/she may well over-estimate him/herself, considering his/her virtues as really rather wonderful, and will feel that it was him/herself alone that produced that result. But, as we have seen, a Spinozist universe is one of an infinite series of causes and effects; there are no autonomous agents, and therefore the jubilant “top-grade” student is the victim of the affect of self-love, suckered into imagining him/herself as wonderful when he/she is not.

Pride is thinking more highly of oneself than is just, out love of oneself… love of oneself, or self-esteem, insofar as it so affects a man that he thinks more highly of himself than is just. (pp. 108, D XXVIII)


Journey into Joy  

When have you felt these types of self-love, self-esteem or pride within educational settings? Think about times when you have “achieved” good results etc.; what are your thoughts upon your achievements having absorbed Spinoza’s philosophy? Did you have an “adequate idea” of yourself?

In what ways do the configurations and structures of education produce these affects? Why do you think that they do this?


Learning, Loving and Favour

Favor is a love toward someone who has benefited another. (pp. 107, D. XIX)

The affect of favour plays an important role in educational institutions because there are so many opportunities for people to benefit one another. The affect of favour comes more into play, the more pressurised and “high-stakes” the atmosphere is. So, for example, if a teacher may well feel favour towards the headteacher if he/she gives him a pay rise, and may feel a form of love towards him/her. This is a very crude example, but, in my experience, favour happens in more subtle ways. Many teachers can resent a headteacher who has such power over him/her for reasons we will explore later, but may well feel favour towards a colleague who has significantly helped them with planning lessons, a difficult class or marking. The affect of favour happens gradually over time, with colleagues benefitting each other in little but consistent ways. Such institutional situations can generate genuine feelings of love. Similarly, students can feel this affect towards teachers, because they have seen that the teacher has “gone the extra mile” to help them.

But a Spinozist pedagogue would point out that it was the institutional “set-up” which produce the breeding ground for these types of favour. Ideally, a teacher would aim to create the conditions where “nobility” rather than “favour” was nurtured.

Journey into Joy  

When have you felt “favour” towards someone within the educational context? What about outside the educational context?

Teaching and Favour

The stereotype of the teacher who has his/her favourites is still prevalent in our culture today, both in actual and virtual forms. I have seen a number of teachers who clearly have their “favourites”: they have an inadequate idea overall of their pupils’ powers of action because they believe mistakenly that some students are “better” than others. This is because they like students who “benefit” them.

Journey into Joy


When have you come across teachers who have their favourites? And students? Why does favouritism happen? What are the knock-on effects of favouritism? See Learning and Envy.

Compassion, Loving and learning

Compassion is love, insofar as it so affects a man that he is glad at another’s good fortune, and saddened by his ill fortune. (1994a, pp. 108, D. XXIV)

Compassion can be a powerful tool for learning. For example, some of the most effective lessons that I have taught have been when students feel compassion towards characters they have been reading about, such as in Of Mice and Men when the main protagonist Lennie dies. The compassion that the students have towards the idea of Lennie, an entirely fictional character, means that they feel strongly connected to the book, and from this passion, they gain a sense of the joyful nature of reading. However, it is important for the teacher to build upon the affect by getting students to conceive of adequate ideas about why they might be feeling this way. Ultimately, gaining an adequate idea of this affect might mean that students begin to learn how they’ve had their emotions manipulated by the writer, who, you could argue, has deliberated engineered his writing so that readers will feel this affect. The writer Kazuo Ishiguru says that he plans all of his novels by working out what sort of feeling he wants his readers to have at the end of his story.

Journey into Joy

When have you felt compassion in an educational context?

When might compassion be a suitable affect to explore in education?

Teaching and Loving

I think it important for a teacher to model the reasons why he/she loves learning. See Conceiving Adequate Ideas About Love and Learning.

Hopeful Learning

hope is nothing but an inconstant joy which has arisen from the image of a future or past thing whose outcome we doubt; (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 81, P18 Schol. 2)

Hope is an inconstant joy, born of the idea of a future or past thing whose outcome we to some extent doubt.  (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 106, D. XII)

Is hope an effective affect to nurture in education? I’m not so sure. As Spinoza points out, it is closely allied with fear; once a teacher nurtures hope, they also bring fear. It is definitely an affect which attaches itself to “performance oriented” learning (see my commentary on Spinoza’s Appendix to I). Once a teacher stokes up the “hope” that a student might achieve well in a piece of work, they also create the fear that they may not. Too easily in my experience, the “hope” of doing well replaces any intrinsic love of learning. The affect of “hope” hijacks the learner displacing any “adequate ideas” they have had about the topic they were studying. This said, when “hope” is focused upon the learning, a student’s powers of action could be increased. For example, a learner might “hope” to find the correct answer (as opposed to hoping for a good grade) and this may motivate them to problem-solve in a productive way. In English, this might mean a learner hoping to make sense of a difficult passage they don’t understand. This said, if hope is the only affect at play, it may not be enough for a learner to adequate overcome “cognitive dissonance”; they may well be easily defeated in their quest to adequately understand a long description by a writer like Thomas Hardy. The affect of “tenacity” will be more significant in helping them problem solve.

Journey into Joy

When have teachers invoked the affect of “hope” in you and to what effect? For example, presenting you with the hope of doing well in a test? Do you think it’s a useful affect for a teacher to deploy in classroom settings?

Confident Learning

Next, if the doubt involved in these affects is removed, hope becomes confidence (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 81, P18 Schol. 2)

Confidence is a joy born of the idea of a future or past thing, concerning which the cause of doubting has been removed. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 106, D. XIV)

I have noticed time and again how easily my confidence in myself has been destroyed by the negative aspect of despair. It’s only from reading Spinoza that I’ve realised how closely related confidence and despair are, and this has really helped me better understand why I’ve had my confidence so easily shattered. Let me explain. Within the school system, there is a constant striving for certainty in so many ways. In the current climate of constant government pressure to attain high results, schools, as bodies in themselves, want to find the “sure-fire” way to success, to attaining the best results from students, and in this quest they reach for the latest initiative that offers “certainty”. This affect is passed on to the teacher who searches for “certain” methods that will ensure that they are an “effective” teacher; this methods can bring “confidence” in the Spinozist sense of the word. “Doubt” has been removed from the equation; this is the “way” of doing things. I saw this with the Literacy Strategies in the early 2000s.

This was a government directive which instructed teachers to “deliver” hundreds of detailed learning objectives at Key Stages 1-3 (5-14 year olds). These learning objectives were supplied in thick folders – and later online. Teachers of literacy (largely English and Primary school teachers) were asked to teach to one or two of these “Literacy” objectives every lesson. There were objectives for each year group. It was complicated to figure out how to teach to these objectives because their wording was often academic and inaccessible for both students and teachers. Nevertheless, the affect of “certainty” entered the school system: there was no doubting about what to do. Research and my own experience shows that this stopped teachers thinking for themselves; they became confident because all “doubting” about what and how to teach had been removed. The instructions about how to teach the Literacy Strategy were also very detailed. The Literacy Strategy was abandoned in the late Noughties and early 2010 partly because of a change of government, but also because there was a dawning realisation that it was not working on behalf of the profession and policy-makers. Instead, a new “certainty” entered the system; this was that everything in the Literacy Strategy was ineffective.

The new government issued a new National Curriculum which, although shorter, was just as prescriptive in some ways in its insistence upon the teaching of pre-20th century literature and grammatical terminology as the way to improve standards of literacy. I would argue that this context has shaped the affects that produce the teacher in that the teacher is on an endless, Sisyphean process whereby they achieve a “false” confidence that a particular teaching method or topic must be taught and this affect informs their teaching persona for a while, but then they lose confidence because it becomes clear that their confidence was misplaced. I’ve found countless times that this cycle of confidence, doubt and despair has “produced” me at various stages in my teaching career. For example, I feel sure that a particular method is the way to teach a text for an exam and I work hard upon doing it this way only to suffer at the end of the course a set of “bad” class results because my students have performed badly in an exam. The confidence that I felt is utterly shattered and I despair that I will ever get it right. Or I will feel confident that I have assessed students’ coursework correctly only to learn that my marks are questioned by a colleague – or worse a senior manager – and that I was “wrong”. Often, I will have been judged to have been “over-inflating” my own students’ marks and be told that my students’ work is “sub-standard”, thus implying that my teaching of them has been poor. This has often had the effect of destroying my confidence: my conception of my own intellectual and pedagogical abilities is severely altered, making me think that I don’t really know what I’m doing.


Finally, gladness is a joy which has arisen from the image of a past thing whose outcome we doubted. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 81, P18 Schol. 2)

Gladness is a joy, accompanied by the idea of a past thing which has turned out better than we had hoped. (pp. 107, D. XVI)

Gladness and The Learner

Often many learners will under-estimate their abilities, doubt that things will go well, in order to feel the affect of gladness when they do.

Journey into Joy

When have you felt glad that things have turned out better than you have hoped? What effect has this affect had upon you? Have you begun to doubt yourself so that you might feel this affect again?

Gladness and the Teacher

Teaching provides many opportunities to feel gladness. This is because there are many “outcomes” which teachers doubt will turn out well. For example, a teacher may seriously doubt that a class will behave with them, and then when they do, he/she feels very glad. This has been a repeated affect during my career. I’ve had a particularly “bad” class – my students have not paid attention, have not got on with the work etc. – and have dreaded teaching the class the next day, but then it turns out that they do get on with the work and appear to learn something. The gladness I’ve felt in such circumstances has been particularly gratifying.

The other times when I’ve felt glad is when it’s been a CPD or “snow day”. During the winter months, the snow has randomly descended upon the school’s portion of earth and the school, not being able to cope with the blocked roads, the broken water pipes etc. – has shut. What I had expected to be a long, hard day teaching turns out to be totally “free”. The gladness I’ve felt is extreme. I suppose I am unusual in that I have always enjoyed pursuing my writing in my free time rather than watching TV all day. The gladness I’ve felt is the time to write things like what I am currently writing at my own leisure.

With CPD, I’ve felt glad to have a training day rather than teaching, even though such training days have been quite boring. I’ve often found that I feel very tired on such days, wanting to nod off as a trainer delivers yet another PowerPoint lecture on how and what to teach. Perhaps my sleepiness has been due to the fact that I feel more relaxed.

I have found that this “affect” of gladness has informed my current job as Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths. The job is very different from teaching in that while there is a certain amount of teaching involved, it is sporadic, and I have found that I have had many more days “free” than before. I said to one friend that I’m treating the job like an extended CPD and snow day. The job has given me more freedom and time to pursue my own writing projects.

I do school visits where I observe student teachers teach. It’s then that I miss the classroom – to a degree – I miss the interaction with students, talking to them about what they are thinking, feeling and learning. But I don’t miss the relentless “lesson after lesson” affect that I used to feel at the beginning of many days. It is very draining being a teacher because it requires so much energy. And during my teaching career, I was usually teaching at least four or five lessons a day, one lesson after another. There was no chance for reflection, for thinking about what I was doing, or what my students were learning. No real chance to think. I am very glad that I now have that chance. It wasn’t something that I expected. I always expected to teach in a secondary school until I retired. The lecturing job was unexpected, and it is this “unexpectedness” that has generated the affect of gladness in me I think. Frequently, my mind reflects upon how glad I am to be doing the job I am.

Joy and sadness: a chart

This is a word processed version of the same chart:

Joy Joy ——————–Sadness


Love is a joy, accompanied by the idea of an external cause (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 105, DVI)   Hate is a sadness, accompanied by the idea of an external cause (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 106, DVII)
Inclination is a joy accompany by the idea of a thing which the accidental cause of joy (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 106, D. VIII) Aversion is a sadness accompanied by the idea of something which the accidental cause of sadness (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 106, D. IX)
Mockery is a joy born of the fact that we imagine something we disdain in a thing we hate (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 106, D. XI)
Hope is an inconstant joy, born of the idea of a future or past thing whose outcome we to some extent doubt.  (pp. 106, D. XII) Fear is an inconstant sadness, born of the idea of a future or past thing whose outcome we to some extent doubt. (pp. 106, D. XIII)
Confidence is a joy born of the idea of a future or past thing, concerning which the cause of doubting has been removed. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 106, D. XIV) Despair is a sadness born of the idea of a future or past thing, concerning which the cause of doubting has been removed. (pp. 106, D. XV)
Gladness is a joy, accompanied by the idea of a past thing which has turned out better than we had hoped. (pp. 107, D. XVI) Envy is a hate insofar as it so affects a man that he is saddened by another’s happiness and, conversely, glad at his ill fortune. (pp. 107, D. XXIII) Remorse is a sadness, accompanied by the idea of a past thing which has turned out worse than we had hoped (pp. 107, D. XVII)
Pity is a sadness, accompanied by the idea of an evil which has happened to another whom we imagine to be like us. Compassion is…the habitual disposition of this affect. (pp. 107, D. XVIII)
Self-esteem is a joy born of the fact that a man considers himself and power of acting. (pp. 108, D. XXV) See also Pride. Humility is a sadness born of the fact that a man considers his own lack of power, or weakness. (pp. 108, D. XXVI)
  Repentance is a sadness accompanied by the idea of some deed we believe ourselves


Despondency is thinking less highly of oneself than is just, out of sadness (pp. 108, D XXIX)

Love of esteem is a joy accompanied by the idea of some action of ours which we imagine that others praise. (pp. 108, D XXX) Shame is a sadness, accompanied by the idea of some action which we imagine that others blame. (pp. 108, D XXXI)
Joy which arises from the absence of the thing we hate (P47S) (pp. 110, D XXXII) Longing is really a sadness which is opposed to that joy which arises from the absence of a thing we hate (P47S) (pp. 110, D XXXII)
Cheerfulness = species of joy

(p. 105)

Melancholy = species of sadness (p. 105)
Pleasure = species of joy (p. 105) Pain = species of sadness (p. 105)