• Emily Rose Seeber

Anger and Forgiveness in the Classroom

This week I have been reading Martha Nussbaum's excellent book, Anger and Forgiveness, and had the opportunity to reflect on the life lessons she provides for the educational establishment. In this brief post I am firstly going to reflect on the three types of anger that Nussbaum describes: the the road of payback, the road of status and the transition; and where they are present in classrooms. Secondly, I will outline her reasons for rejecting the first the road of payback and the road of status as morally problematic. Thirdly, I will offer some ways to move away from the cycle of anger and forgiveness, through retributive punishment in schools towards a more forward-looking educational environment.


In modern usage, anger entail the notion of 'payback' or a 'revenge wish' as being an essential part of the emotion. Without this aspect, 'anger' would more appropriately be termed 'grief' or 'disappointment'. Crudely, anger means that someone has hurt you, or someone that you care about (to use Aristotle's terminology, someone in your 'circle of concern'), and you wish that someone or something will be done about it. This generally involves wishing some kind of pain or upset on the injurer. For example, in the case of a rape, the victim is angry with the rapist, and wishes misfortune upon them, such as retributive justice (a harsh prison sentence), or may simply yearn for physical pain to befall them. If the victim did not wish harm of some kind upon the rapist, the victim is thought to be suffering grief from the attack instead: it only becomes anger when they want something done about it.

This notion of 'payback' as an essential aspect of anger can be explained in two ways:

  1. The pain of the injurer compensates for the harm they subjected the victim to.

  2. The pain of the injurer lowers the relative status of the injurer which compensates for lowering the status of the victim.

Let's have a look at some examples of these kinds of anger in school situations:

  • Archie hits Bertie at break time. Bertie is extremely angry and wishes for Archie to mess up in the Spanish test next lesson because he will 'deserve' to fail.

  • Claire posts an embarrassing picture of Dora on social media. Dora feels that her social status has been damaged and wishes for Claire to trip over in the lunch queue to even the score.

  • Mr Ellis promised to help Mr Fairs with planning an assembly, but Mr Ellis pulled out at the last minute claiming he was too busy, Mr Fairs is extremely angry and is secretly delighted when Mr Ellis is told off by SMT for not marking his books properly as this makes him feel better about Mr Ellis not helping.

  • Mrs Gardner tells off Harry in class for chatting, but Harry feels that he wasn't talking as much as his friends. Harry feels that Mrs Gardner has treated him unfairly and plots rude comments he would like to say in order to make Mrs Gardner 'feel small'.

The first and the third example are clearly anger of type 1, and the second and fourth examples are of type 2. However, Nussbaum also argues that there is a type 3: anger that she terms 'transition-anger'. In this type of anger the victim responds "that's outrageous; something should be done about it", and then proceeds to act in such a way to improve social welfare. example, in the cases above, the victims could have responded as follows instead:

  • Bertie: "That's outrageous: what can I do to minimise playground bullying in this school?"

  • Dora: "That's outrageous: what can I do to raise awareness of the laws surrounding posting pictures of other people online?"

  • Mr Fairs: "That's outrageous: what can I do to promote an attitude of collaboration in the staffroom?"

  • Harry: "That's outrageous: what can I do to ensure that students are not falsely accused of poor behaviour in lessons?"

In each of these cases, the anger does not have a payback wish, it simply acknowledges the 'crime' and moves forwards in a productive way. Nussbaum calls this forward-looking attitude 'the transition', and suggests this is the best response to injury as it deters future crime, ensuring the improved wellbeing of the injured party and others around them.


Nussbaum argues that 1 involves 'magical thinking': a harsh prison sentence does not 'un-rape' the victim. There is no sense in which a payback wish makes sense if it is about compensating for harm. The harsh sentence may do other things,: it may deter future acts of rape, or reform the rapist, but it does not undo the original crime. so this view of anger is morally incoherent. Archie failing in Spanish, does not mean that Bertie was not punched in the playground.

In the case of 2, Nussbaum suggests that a 'payback wish' does make sense: if anger is about 'status-injury' then a the lowering of the status of the rapist does compensate for lowering the status of the rape-victim. But, rape, and many other crimes, do not appear to be about status: the rape victim is not angry that her status in society has been damages, she is angry because her rights have been violated in the most abhorrent way. Dora does feel that her status has been lowered by Claire, but this reveals a narcissistic streak in Dora, as she is worried by the effect that a photo can have on her social status. For Nussbaum, anger about relative status reflects a narcissistic tendency - an obsession with relative social status - which is morally undesirable in society and we should not encourage anger in order to preserve an elevated sense of self.

Type 3, transition-anger, does not have the failings of 'magical thinking' and 'narcissism', which Naussbaum accuses the first two types of anger of having. As a result this is the only morally desirable form of anger, and and of response that we need to imbue in our students.

"We have a moral duty to try and move beyond anger."

As a final note in this section, Nussbaum is skeptical about the value of forgiveness in response to anger. She suggests that the notion of forgiveness in society has no coherence without the Judeo-Christian metaphysical framework it is built on. Furthermore, it leads to an unhealthy obsession with the sinful act: it is inherently backward looking. Instead, the victim should focus on moving forwards by throwing themselves into their own life, rather than worrying about whether or not the perpetrator has apologised in the right way: if they have then great! this acknowledges the crime and promotes social good, but if not this should not prevent the victim from moving forwards and promoting social welfare in their own way.


In order to encourage students to choose the path of transition-anger instead of the road of payback, or the road of status-injury, we need to tackle some key areas in the way that we interact with students, and promote students' interactions with one another. These can fall in to two categories: firstly, we need to discourage students from thinking retributively about crimes, and encourage them to talk about the welfare of the school community instead; and, secondly, we need to decrease their obsession with social status as far as possible.

Challenging the desire for revenge means getting rid of the language of retribution and forgiveness in behaviour management policies and the way we talk to students. For example, avoiding saying that Imogen is in detention "because she deserves it", but "because punishing Imogen is a means of deterring her, and others repeating her mistake". We should not 'extract' apologies from students in order to forgive them for behaviour towards a teacher or another student. An apology is a means to acknowledge the error and allow the student to move forwards as a better individual through self-awareness, not an intrinsically good end in itself; it allows the student to move forwards and not make the same mistake again. For a student who does not recognise their error, 'extracting' an apology will not make them more self-aware; teaching them values will.

The rise of narcissism appears to be all-pervading in modern life. This is a particular challenge for children in the social-media generation. This has made egos more fragile, and social status more tenuous. What can we do to counter this as teachers? Firstly, we can (continue to) be the most concerned group in society for the welfare of others (along with medical professionals, etc.), modelling putting others first, and not being worried about our own images. Secondly, we can never check social media in lessons (I have seen this while walking past windows, and if I can see it, so can students!). Thirdly, we can promote the Stoic wisdom that wishing for payback, and exacting it, actually further lowers the status of the avenger, not the status of the other person who is receiving the payback: so it is entirely counterproductive to wish vengeance on somebody. Fourthly, we should encourage students not to take themselves so seriously, and not take ourselves so seriously either; Aristotle rightly suggests that anger comes less easily to those who are playful.

"Education is a stressful environment, but it is also a playful one."

Some concluding thoughts about Anger and Forgiveness:

  • This is a beautifully written book. Nussbaum peppers the text with examples from ancient philosophy, Greek literature, psychology, personal experience, history, politics, classic novels, music, and pop culture. It is pure indulgence for the armchair intellectual.

  • However, on occasion, I did feel that perhaps Nussbaum had been fairly selective with her examples, particularly from novels, somewhat reducing their persuasiveness.

  • In Chapter 3, Nussbaum provides a Nietzschean genealogy of the Judeo-Christian account of forgiveness which I would have appreciated with respect to anger as well as it would have enriched my understanding greatly.

  • Despite these flaws, Nussbaum provides a very cogent argument for her welfarist conclusions, and I have found myself agreeing with her views in almost every area, although I remain skeptical about the possibility of the entire human race moving 'beyond anger' any time soon (the results from the French election are being counted as I type).

Education is a stressful environment, but it is also a playful one. And it is in education that we need to start modelling values that reject payback and vengeance, and encourage our future citizens to look ahead for the good of all, rather than behind to personal vendettas. Of course, we will all fail to meet Nussbaum's lofty goals, but she has provided an excellent defence for the notion that we have a moral duty to try and move beyond anger.

#philosophy #wellbeing #education #broadercurriculum #philosophybooks

© 2017 by Emily Rose Seeber.