The Challenges of Teaching Critical Thinking

How much power does reason have?

How much power does reason have?

The other day in my critical thinking class, I asked my students about how much control they think they have over their emotions. It’s a crucial issue in the quest to become a better critical thinker. After all, irrational reactions and unfounded feelings are often the main barriers to logical inquiry and sound reasoning.

My argument was that emotions are primal, subconscious judgments our brains make of the environment. I don’t consciously have to order myself to be afraid of a snake and flinch or run. It’s an automatic response. If we feel fear or anger or sadness or joy, it’s because our subcortex has already evaluated the variables, fired up the glands, secreted the hormones, and signaled our organs and muscles to respond in particular way. All of this happens in the blink of an eye, in the interval of a heartbeat. We don’t really consciously choose how to feel about anything. We might be capable of controlling the actions that flow from our feelings—to stop ourselves from reacting this way or that-. But the feelings themselves persist, and you can’t wish them away anymore than you can wish away the rain. In short, our feelings occur to us.

Emotions happen.

I was surprised by how many students didn’t agree. Several claimed they can consciously modulate their feelings, even talk themselves into or out of feeling angry or sad or afraid or joyful if they desire. Part of me wanted to cry, “B.S.” If emotional management worked like that, there wouldn’t be billions spent each year on therapists and happy pills. But in the spirit of critical thinking, we put the idea on trial. In the end, I think most of the students came around to the notion that we have less conscious control over our feelings than we’d like to think, especially after I showed them a clip about marketing guru Clotaire Rapaille and his theory of the reptilian brain and how, in America, the cheese is always dead (seriously click the link and watch the clip—it’s fascinating).

But the initial reaction still puzzles me. Was it the youthful tendency to overestimate one’s abilities? Were they just being provocative, Socratic contrarians? Or is this indicative of a change? I don’t want to make a hasty generalization, but it prompts the question: is there a new psychological self-concept developing among this generation? Do some Millennials have a different phenomenological perspective when it comes to their emotions? Are the medicalization of mental issues and the proliferation of pharmaceutical remedies leading to a new attitude toward human psychology?

As a philosophical person, I’m curious about the history of how humans perceive their own psyches. Plato compared our primal motivations and emotional intuitions to wild horses that reason, the charioteer, tames and steers. Like Nietzsche, I’ve always thought Plato distorted and overrated our rational capacities. Hume said reason is ultimately the slave of our passions. But I’ve always wondered if that isn’t too fatalistic. I guess I lean more towards Hume’s assessment, but if I didn’t still believe in at least the spirit of Plato’s metaphor, then I wouldn’t be teaching critical thinking, right? I mean, what would be the point?

What do you think?

11 Responses to “The Challenges of Teaching Critical Thinking”

  1. Justine Kingsbury Says:

    The view that you can to some extent control your emotions doesn’t seem strange to me. As you say, you can control how you behave in response to your own emotions – and how you behave affects whether and to what extent the emotions persist. For example, (contra the view that it’s cathartic to express your emotions) behaving angrily can cause you to get even angrier, where if you had behaved more calmly you would have begun to FEEL calm more quickly.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Justine. I tend to agree with your point, but part of me wonders whether that’s what is actually happening. If we can stop ourselves from lashing out in anger, is it because we’ve consciously managed to calm ourselves down? Or did the physiological processes wind down on their own, and we erroneously attributing it to our will? In other words, are we confusing cause and effect?

  3. I believe we have intent and make choices. I think that the act of choosing a response impacts on the original emotional frame, anyway, and may well change it. And of this wasn’t so, if we didn’t shape and manage how we feel to some extent, given the primacy of emotion in human experience, how would critical thinking be at all possible without management of those emotions? But it is.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Kitty! I agree with your basic premise. It begs the question, however. To what extent?

  5. I think that it is possible to control our emotions to some extent because we live complecated lives. The control of our emotions where it is possible or necessary, helps the critical thinking development.

  6. Thanks for commenting, Pagona. Wondering if we can unpack and analyze the “to some extent” part. Everything revolves around the degree or extent and how/where that extent arises. Otherwise, we’re assuming and therefore guessing about the very thing we’re trying to identify and understand:)

  7. if you control your emotions 100% you will become the leader that
    Plato describes.

  8. affective scientists do not have definite responses for the problem. And the discussion -as you mentioned- leads to a confused situation between cause and effect. However relying on Cognitivists approaches give more evidences for putting emotion in its context and holding it as what has to be “learned”. For instance some experimental cases argue about baby’s playing with snake without having any fear like emotion. Considering emotions as a cognitive process however does not eliminate the role of body in emotion’s persistence and duration but it seems our control over emotions can be determined by our cognition…

  9. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Sina. Does that mean that ‘cognitive’ refers to properties and causal powers that are irreducible to neuro-chemical ones? It’s a good way of pinpointing the key issue. What instinctual, ‘hardwired’ processes are we reacting to cognitively–ones that can’t be conditioned out of us so long as we are in ‘human’ bodies, and which ones are the programmed cognitively-enhanced behaviors? The infant’s reaction to a snake or a rat or a spider is an insightful experiment. What reaction doesn’t have to be taught? What aspects of cognition have to be developed, i.e. re-purposing the emotional context, formulated thousands or millions of years ago on the savannahs of Africa, for this new ‘civilized’ context in which archaic emotional responses become problematic, dysfunctional, even pathological. Time for the happy pills again! Great point and thanks again for taking the time to comment:)

  10. Many thanks for your reply Jason. I am agree with you and don’t think it could absolutely be irreducible to neurochemical affections; bodily reactions play significant role in the process. And different reactions against different emotions are seen as an argument for plausibility of the precedence of cognition in affections. In an intensive sadness heartbeat falls down and it is considered as an indication which distinguishes sadness from anger. Yes, what have been learned over time, gradually became as part of our fixed reaction driven by our sense of self preservation. It seems we are still in the pathway of change specially due to adaptation with new age… And yes the happy pills might be seen as one of the components of the everlasting transmission 🙂 That’s why I use it :)))))

  11. Lol, Sina…I’m wondering about this distinction we often make, myself included, between the cognitive and non-cognitive, i.e. emotional/affective. Is this a way of re-mapping the conscious/unconscious dichotomy? Is it part of the post-Cartesian, dualistic hangover? I wonder how well this analysis holds up to empirical testing. Maybe part of the progress and adaptation process will be giving up on dualistic distinctions like these. I discuss this in my new blog:

    https://uroboros73.wordpress.com/2013/09/14/is-believing-is-seeing-is-believing-is-the-dynamics-of-the-uroboric-mind-and-the-emergence-of-critical-thinking/

    I’m looking at ways of reformulating and reframing the dynamic…

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