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What Is the Role of the Humanities in Positive Education?

James O. Pawelski, PhD

IPEN Steering Committee 


The logo of the International Positive Education Network (IPEN) is a double helix, emphasizing the equal importance positive education places on academics on the one hand and character and well-being on the other. The IPEN Manifesto defines academics as the “fulfillment of intellectual potential through the learning of the best that has been thought and known,” and character and well-being as the “development of character strengths and well-being, which are intrinsically valuable and contribute to a variety of positive life outcomes.”


To which of these two strands of the double helix do the humanities belong? Given the central role the humanities have had in academic curricula around the world for millennia, it seems obvious they belong to the first strand. Literature, history, music, art, religion, and philosophy have long been used to hone students’ vocabulary, reading skills and comprehension, writing ability, critical thinking, and cultural knowledge. Given the undeniable importance of these serious and testable outcomes, it may seem that any emphasis on developing well-being should take place outside the classroom so as not to distract from this important learning. Perhaps character-development efforts should be relegated to after-school programs, sports teams, and visits to the principal or headmaster. Or if they must be brought into the classroom, maybe they should just be used as tools for helping students acquire academic skills.


It is important to note that the humanities have many uses. In addition to academic value, for example, they have economic, professional, and entertainment value. Works of literature, art museums, and musical compositions have significant economic footprints, provide a large number of employment and career opportunities, and are taken up by many as a means of rest and relaxation. Although each of these uses is important, a look at the contents of the humanities themselves reveals a strong emphasis on understanding and cultivating those factors that make life worth living. This is the “eudaimonic” value of the humanities, their value for living life well.


For a variety of reasons, it is easy for the economic, professional, and entertainment value of the humanities to eclipse their eudaimonic value. Each of these uses have interests, institutions, and infrastructures intent on advancing them. And the same is true of their academic use. But the eudaimonic value of the humanities, although underdeveloped and frequently forgotten, is no less important, and its advancement is one of the most pressing prerequisites for positive education.


A growing number of scholars, creators, and teachers in different sectors of the humanities are calling for increased attention to their actual and potential value for human flourishing. They are, in effect, calling for a “eudaimonic turn,” where well-being is explicitly acknowledged as one of their central values. This is perhaps nowhere more advanced than in the study of literature. Two years ago, my colleague Don Moores and I co-edited an anthology of critical essays on The Eudaimonic Turn: Well-Being in Literary Studies. Along with a dozen literary scholars, we explored what it might mean for literature to have a eudaimonic value and how this value might be accessed. Subsequently, I joined a group of scholars to collect poems throughout time that addressed various topics of well-being, and just this year we published On Human Flourishing: A Poetry Anthology.


Not only is it important to develop the well-being value of the humanities, but it is also important to do so in a balanced way. In fascinating respects, it seems the humanities are recapitulating the experience of psychology. Twenty years ago, the founders of positive psychology observed that psychology focused more on mental illness than on mental health. Currently, when the humanities do take up questions of flourishing, they more frequently emphasize the nature and causes of ill-being than the definition and promotion of well-being. They more frequently employ what Paul Ricoeur called the “hermeneutics of suspicion” than what he termed the “hermeneutics of affirmation.”


One reason it is easy for the well-being value of the humanities to be eclipsed is that it is easier to measure its other uses. Economic, professional, and entertainment values have specific metrics attached to them, and academic value is measured in terms of course grades, exam results, and subsequent placements. In the humanities disciplines, there has long been strong resistance to empirical measurement, with scholars arguing that the intrinsic, non-instrumental value of the humanities cannot be quantified. This does not mean, however, that at least some of the eudaimonic effects of the humanities cannot be empirically assessed. As one step in this direction, Louis Tay, Melissa Keith, and I have created a conceptual model for operationalizing and measuring this value.


The IPEN Manifesto holds not only that the two strands of academics and well-being are important, but that they also complement each other. The academic use of the humanities is already well-established. Understanding and measuring the well-being use of the humanities will dramatically advance their educational value, so that their academic and eudaimonic values mutually reinforce each other. This is an outstanding role for the humanities in positive education.




Moores, D. J., Pawelski, J. O., Potkay, A., Mason, E., Wolfson, S., & Engell, J. (Eds.). (2015).

            On Human Flourishing: An Anthology of Poetry. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Pawelski, J. O. (2015). The humanities and the science of well-being: The eudaimonic turn and

            the benefits of collaboration. Manuscript under preparation.

Pawelski, J. O., & Moores, D. J. (Eds.). (2013). The eudaimonic turn: Well-being in

            literary studies. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1970). Freud and philosophy: An essay on interpretation. New Haven, CT: Yale

            University Press.

Tay, L., Pawelski, J. O., & Keith, M. (2015). The role of the arts and humanities in human

            flourishing: A conceptual model. Manuscript submitted for publication.




About the Author:

James O. Pawelski, PhD is Director of Education and Senior Scholar in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. He is Principal Investigator for a grant from the Templeton Religion Trust on “The Humanities and the Science of Well-Being: Toward a Strategic Collaboration for Understanding, Measuring, and Cultivating Human Flourishing.”