A Short Meditation on Teaching Humanities: Dispassionate Reasoning, Passionate Conversation and Friendship

In his essay on friendship Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

Our intellectual and active powers increase with our affection. The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend,–and, forthwith, troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words. … For long hours [in conversation with friends] we can continue a series of sincere, graceful, rich communications, drawn from the oldest, secretest experience, so that they who sit by, of our own kinsfolk and acquaintance, shall feel a lively surprise at our unusual powers. But as soon as the stranger begins to intrude his partialities, his definitions, his defects, into the conversation, it is all over. He has heard the first, the last and best he will ever hear from us. He is no stranger now. Vulgarity, ignorance, misapprehension are old acquaintances. Now, when he comes, he may get the order, the dress, and the dinner,–but the throbbing of the heart, and the communications of the soul, no more.

I will just come out with it. I want my classroom to be a place of friendly, passionate conversation. This is an ideal, to be sure. But given that I teach relatively small classes (28 or less), it is realizable — in part or in full. I want my students’ hearts and souls to be on fire. [I am scheduled to teach Symbolic Logic next semester — a subject that does not exactly lend itself to passionate emotions!]

Is this ideal unreasonable and wrongheaded? Or rather, is it just what we need in order to improve campus climates and to broaden the appeal of the humanities beyond the academy — to hardworking people who do not have the leisure to play vacuous games of intellectual one-upmanship.

I cringe when educators sell the humanities on the basis of “critical thinking” skills. First, the humanities do not have a monopoly on critical thinking. Far from it! Second, critical thinking is only a small, relatively insignificant part of what the humanities teach.

When, in the 1960’s, Northern Arizona University was transitioning from a college to a university its slogan was “to become educated is to become more human“. Indeed, many small liberal arts colleges today incorporate similar notions into their mission statements. And yet — these same institutions tout the classroom as a place of “dispassionate reasoning” and “cool thinking” — a space quite different from the Emersonian ideal of exalted conversation and friendship.

How do the humanities teach us how to be human? They connect us to our human ancestors and to other cultures. They open us up to new ways of being and doing and seeing in the world. The humanities expand who we are. They help us tell better stories about ourselves and our world. They cultivate our awe of beauty. They inspire us to dream big and live large. I have no idea how one would achieve such connection, openness, storytelling, awe, inspiration and dreams in a dispassionate classroom that engages only cool reason.

Perhaps the way forward is to take our cue from Emerson and foster friendliness and friendship in the classroom. Too often classmates treat their peers as nameless strangers. But students can learn not just with each other; they can also learn from each other. How do we foster friendly bonds between students? How do we teach them how to be human to each other?

If my students can learn how to learn from each other (and learn how to pursue the humanities beyond the academy), then I have succeeded. And if not — well, at least I have tried. 🙂

Sarah

Writing from my calm place (Sedona, Arizona). The sun sets near Bell Trail.

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