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Why Emotions Are Necessary in Education (So Is Logic)

Why Emotions Are Necessary in Education (So Is Logic)

In education, there is a tradition of separating reason from emotions. We learn best, the conventional wisdom goes, when able to rationally consider information in a dispassionate manner. Emotions cause us to become impulsive and make rash judgments. When we try to acquire knowledge while in an emotional state, we allow biases to infect our thinking. Knowledge emerges in a spirit of calmness and moderation. Error emerges, on the other hand, in a spirit of abandonment to passion.

This ideal of the dispassionate knower has roots in the Enlightenment’s separation of  reason from myth. Reason, liberating itself from the revealed frameworks of theology, would master the natural world and usher in an age of technological progress. Enlightenment thinkers championed the individual use of reason and jettisoned the human tendency to embed ourselves in mythical origin stories. Instead of surrendering reason to trust in revelation that reason can never prove, the Enlightenment made individual judgment the ultimate arbiter of truth.

To understand the intellectual and cultural dynamic of the Enlightenment, we need to juxtapose the Greek gods of Apollo and Dionysus. On the one hand, Apollo represents calmness and moderation, expressed in highly structured poetry and music. He stands for  the spirit of dispassionate detachment, in which reason  judges strictly on the basis of evidence. Dionysus, on the other hand, is the god of wine, passion, and ecstatic frenzy. Dionysus represents the surrender of reason to non-rational myth.

The Enlightenment sought to sever the spirit of Apollo, the spirit of calm rational deliberation, from the Dionysian spirit of ecstasy. Yet, it is not so obvious that emotions cannot actually help us in our project of knowledge acquisition.

This ability to use emotion, and the non-rational tools of myth and religious revelation, is crucial in the struggle against wokeism. Wokeism is an umbrella term that involves radical individual liberty, which takes every limitation as a form of oppression justifying an enforced equality of outcome. Any inequality is necessarily unjust, in the woke ideology. Wokeism also provides a dualistic worldview in which there is a clear good and a clear evil. Those who are privileged are evil, and those who are members of  so-called underrepresented groups are good.

Some critics of wokeism think that a sober commitment to Enlightenment rationality is sufficient to overcome wokeism. Richard Dawkins, for instance, a prominent atheist, thinks that a mere “cultural Christianity,” which does not actually believe in Christian dogma, is a sufficient bulwark against wokeism and other toxic ideologies. Stephen Pinker, the Harvard psychologist, also believes that a return to Enlightenment rationality will save us from wokeism. With scientific rationality, in this view, we will always have a humble attitude, allowing us to revise our views in light of new evidence. This spirit of humility is contrary to the censorious nature of wokeism, which seeks to shut down the opinions opposed to it.

However, a mere commitment to dispassionate reason is not enough to stop wokeism and related ideologies. Wokeism is attractive precisely because it taps into the inveterate human tendency to supplement reason with myth. We not only seek to analyze information with our reason, but to organize it into stories. The same facts take on a different value, according to the grand stories in which we situate them. Wokeism provides an organizing framework within which to view the facts of reality. It weaves these facts into a compelling narrative. Certain groups are oppressed and others are oppressors. The goal of life is to liberate the oppressed. Whatever is old and traditional is born of prejudice and privilege. The new must include recognition of previously marginalized groups. This vision of reality contains some truth, but it becomes dangerous in its simplicity. In many ways, it is not rational, but rationality alone cannot defend against it.

To truly form the mind so that it can properly engage with wokeism, we need an education that builds up both reason and the emotions, that unites the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Emotions are neither necessarily inert nor destructive in our pursuit of knowledge. Epistemological emotions actually aid the learning process. Curiosity, for instance, is at least in part an emotional state. Curiosity is a kind of interior hunger motivating us to learn more. Curiosity seems an essential basis for the acquisition of knowledge. Once a teacher enkindles a spirit of curiosity, there will be motivation to learn. A sense of wonder also inclines the mind to learn; wonder is a deep fascination with reality that drives us to want to know more about it. Once we have these emotions in place, learning becomes much easier.

An education that does not inspire the epistemological emotions of curiosity and wonder is a forced education, one in which a student has to absorb knowledge about which he does not really care. Addressing strictly the reason of students leaves them emotionally divided. The student sits in class uncaringly, woodenly absorbing the material.

Epistemic emotions can make the difference between becoming an innovative leader in one’s field or just collecting a paycheck. When we occupy an emotional desert, we will look for a mythic system that provides us  with emotional investment. Wokeism is very effective at engaging the emotions. Modern students turn to wokeism because traditional education has segregated reason from the emotions. School is something one has to do, and the emotions related to what one truly cares about belong to the domains outside of the classroom.

Of course, a balance must be struck between emotional engagement and the demands of reason. Wokeism constructs a mythic system of belief that satisfies emotional needs and intuitions but does so at the expense of reason. As the ancients understood, our mythic constructs must be ultimately subject to the judgement of reason.

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    Walker Larson
    July 2, 2024, 1:06 pm

    Bravo! Fantastic article. The role of emotions in education is something I've been coming to understand in a deeper and deeper way lately. The connection to Wokism you point out is especially salient. "Modern students turn to wokeism because traditional education has segregated reason from the emotions." I'd never thought of this, but it makes good sense.

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