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, it is realizable — in part or in full. I want my students’ hearts and souls to be on fire.

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 sigh 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. The humanities should teach a student how to be more human and more free, less vulnerable to the social and cultural conditioning that keeps so many of us in chains.

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 more human to each other?



Author: sarahruthjansen

Sarah Ruth Jansen is an American philosopher, author, outdoor adventurer and bicycling advocate based in Arizona. Between terms teaching philosophy Sarah bikepacked the Colorado Trail (Denver to Silverton) in 2014 and completed the cross-country Tour Divide Race in 2015. In 2016 she won the Arizona Trail Race 750, publishing a book about her experience.

4 thoughts on “Teaching Humanities: Dispassionate Reasoning, Passionate Conversation and Friendship”

  1. That Emerson quotation reads like a description of my life. I’ve often found myself struggling to write only to end up developing and formulating my ideas freely and fluidly when writing to a friend. I hadn’t considered that affection might have a role in it; I’ve usually supposed that it’s because I feel as though someone might actually be paying attention.

    I share (I think) your ideals for the classroom, but I wonder about whether the ideal of “cool thinking” and “dispassionate reason,” properly understood, is altogether opposed to it. I suspect that proponents of cool, dispassionate discussion mainly want to avoid the kind of heated, angry discussion that we all see far too often when people who disagree take up controversial topics. That kind of heat and passion typically prevents conversations from being intellectually productive at all, or at least as productive as they could be. I think that most people who claim to want cool, dispassionate reasoning in their classrooms want to cultivate a kind of discussion and thinking that transcends the nasty, polemical fights that most people have in mind when they talk about ‘arguments.’ I’m all for that; I feel as though I’ve already wasted enough of my life on that sort of thing.

    Your Emersonian reflection, though, helpfully suggests an alternative to that kind of heat and passion that isn’t emotionally detached or unengaged. After all, I might actually prefer to talk to somewhat belligerent and dismissive people about something they take to be important than to calm, cool people who simply do not care at all about the topic under discussion. Your way of characterizing the goal takes us away from supposing that what’s at issue is an emotional or un-emotional approach and moves us toward thinking more carefully about what kinds of emotions we want to be active in our classrooms.


    1. I agree with all of this, David! Thank you for this. I think you are absolutely right that proponents of a dispassionate classroom are trying to avoid the sort of discourse that dominates politics. I think there are other motivations as well — e.g., the assumption that emotional detachment and impartiality are linked. I think that given all we are seeing now with implicit bias, it might be well worth challenging that assumption!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Also, David — you might use this to your advantage! Write more letters to friends. Grab coffee with more friends. 🙂 Talk about your ideas openly and passionately. Maybe then you will write another, different book. I hope so!


      2. Another, different, and better book!

        I’ll have to adjust to this whole thing where I actually go to a job for 40-50 hours a week before I have the energy to write another book. But in the meantime I might have enough energy for emails, or blog comments.

        Liked by 1 person

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