Are emotions educable?

Helena Modzelewski, Universidad de la Republica, Uruguay

This is a summary of a seminar that took place in London, March 2018

The issue of emotional education is not only an important way to address the problem of moral motivation, but also in order for citizens to lead a good life. The realization of democracy, understood as a system of government where everyone is respected in their uniqueness and whose voice is heard, requires the development of an egalitarian social background. To achieve this, it is necessary to go beyond the scope of justice limited to institutions. If citizens should not only be recipients, but actors of justice, it is necessary to take into account the conditions that support their motivation to participate, which requires the mediation of emotions. Thus, the consideration of emotions in civic education is essential and adds a dimension that has not yet been sufficiently considered in traditional educational programmes.

However, it is first necessary to ask whether emotions are educable, and the answer requires a retrospective journey through the history of philosophy, which was one of the focuses of my research. The main conclusion was that different philosophers who have treated the topic of emotions, implicitly agree that the concept of self-reflection is the one that enables their education. A self-reflexive subject may decide by themselves which emotions to develop. A democratic society whose objective is the formation of autonomous citizens should aim at a kind of education which, in this way, respects the autonomy of each of its members.

But how can self-reflection related to emotions be cultivated? Contemporary American philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s theory of emotions offers a plausible answer to this question. She conceives of emotions as cognitive, which is directly connected with the idea of self-reflection, but she additionally defines them as narrative. This points in the direction of narrative in general and literature in particular as tools for emotional education.

The Community of Inquiry (CoI), aimed at the development of autonomous, critical thinking which includes metacognitive and self-reflective strategies, and at the same time revolves around a narrative that serves as the starting point for group inquiry and discussion, is a well established tool. It is my proposal that the CoI is the most suitable methodology for emotional education.

How to select the narratives to accompany the methodology of COI targeted at the education of emotions is another issue that needs addressing. The design of criteria for such selection is my ongoing research. When a story is told, the reader or listener engages in dialogue. But this dialogue is not strictly with the author, narrator or storyteller; it is, in fact, with the characters that the reader or listener gets to know, judges and sympathizes with. It is the character that should have the right to ensure their voice is heard. To define the characteristics of a text where the voices of all its characters are authentically heard, I use the Bakhtinian notion of polyphony, which implies that the voices of all the characters, both heroes and villains, can be heard. In fact, there would not be villains in a polyphonic narrative, because every character can make mistakes and feel dragged towards failure and evil. For there to be a true democratic teaching, we must understand that evil is nothing more than a slip of fragility; it is not a deliberate evil. This perspective of the villain becomes a democratic tool to understand the other in their difficulties, and thus want to help, not eliminate them. The Greek tragedy, from Nussbaum’s perspective, seems a good example of the polyphonic narrative I am looking for, as it shows the hero’s unintentional tragic mistakes and terrible outcomes, but the world is full of stories that can fulfill this characteristic as well.

Could the readers suggest polyphonic narratives they think would be good for the COI approach?

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