We are not masters of ourselves.

During the 10th grade year at my school, we teach British Literature.  Midway through the school year, we read several of the great essayists from the 17th century, and discuss the art and craft of the persuasive essay.  Later in the year, we read some of the great Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth and Keats.  One of my aims as a teacher is to contrast Enlightenment thinkers, who scorned subjectivity, believing that scientific method was the key to unlocking the mysteries of the universe, and the Romantics of the early 19th century, who embraced human emotion and the individual’s exploration of imagination as a way of gesturing toward the great questions that linger before us.

I encourage my students to contrast Enlightenment and Romantic philosophies to highlight the tension between reason and emotion, between the need to construct a civilization with a agreed-upon set of values and the raw force of our individual perspectives.  I do this, not because I think its a problem that this tension exists, but because we as a society don’t really understand it.  We are increasing becoming a culture in which feelings become facts, and attitudes become truths—and that IS problematic.

In a Mother Jones article, “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science,” Chris Mooney argues that reason is always going to be tainted by emotion, that the first interpretation of facts is often, if not always, self-interested.  We want the facts to conform to our sense of reality, and therefore, we rationalize more than we reason.  The Romantics were right—our emotions are a powerful force of Nature and can never be completely tamed.  Ultimately, we are not masters of ourselves.

However, more so than ever, we can’t allow our emotions and our beliefs go unchecked.  Our troubled political environment is a great example of this.  In Mooney’s article (which I do highly recommend), he points out the losing battle of emotions over facts: “Because researchers employ so much nuance and disclose so much uncertainty, scientific evidence is highly susceptible to selective reading.  Giving ideologues or partisans scientific data that’s relevant to their beliefs is like unleashing them in the motivated-reasoning equivalent of a candy store.”

Different factions select and arrange facts to support their perspectives, and the news media continues to encourage this behavior to boost their ratings.  News has become entertainment because partisan conflict sells ad space.  Period.  Although, of course, news media has always been partisan to a degree, it has never before been so omnipresent in our daily lives, and never before encouraged and funded so many talking heads, who are less interested in truth and more interested in establishing a contentious position that makes for a “good fight” on a nightly talk show.

I do what I can to combat this.  I emphasize to my students the power of emotion and the fragility of facts.  I encourage them to write essays which are more an act of exploration than a exercise in writing to a predetermined conclusion.  However, many of them are uncomfortable with writing as journey, because we live in a world where we value conviction more than we value truth.  Our culture—particularly the news media—is constantly reenforcing the notion that you should pick a belief and defend it no matter what.  We are being told that conviction and resolve are what make us Americans, anything less would be unpatriotic.  This is a simpler way to live our lives, but it’s also potentially dishonest.

An open search for truth isn’t easy because we are always having to guard against self-interested emotions and be willing to shift our perspectives, to allow ambiguity in, to be uncertain.  I want my students to become comfortable with that struggle, respecting the power of their own emotions and taking into consideration ALL of the facts when forming an opinion.  But this takes a great deal of practice and a willingness to create and destroy and create again without losing sight of their purpose—honest expression.


1 Comment

Filed under Blogs I like and read, Politics, Revising and Writing Process, Teaching and Writing

One response to “We are not masters of ourselves.

  1. Greg Hankins

    Hey John!
    Love this! Great points, and I can’t wait to read the article you reference.
    One additional objective in the education of savvy adolescents — though perhaps not in this particular class — might be to help them learn to navigate the new media landscape, assembling trustworthy sources without simply feeding their own confirmation bias.

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