What Is Education For?

Weekly Article
Flickr Creative Commons / Nottingham Trent University
May 11, 2017

For students and parents all around the country, May is a crucial time of year. It is when millions of high school seniors make a college decision, and when armies of anxious college graduates prepare to embark on their professional careers. Below is an excerpted speech, given by New America President and CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter at the 2017 Indiana University Commencement, that addresses this pivotal time in so many students' lives.

What is education for? When I was an undergraduate, a large part of the answer was the cultivation of reason and the suppression of emotion. Education was enlightenment, what the great economist Albert O. Hirschman described as the triumph of the interests over the passions. Pre-Enlightenment passions were unruly and destructive, driving duels of honor and wars of religion. Passion was hot. Reason was cool, tempered, dispassionate.

Education was reading, researching, compiling, computing, analyzing, writing and discussing: learning how to put aside our intuitions and instincts to enter the land of reasoned argument.  When I got to law school, legal reasoning meant learning the distinction between the logic of law and the emotion of justice. Cases in which a child died because of a defective product had to be analyzed not in terms of empathy and loss but of where to place the cost of remedying that defect in a way that would maximize welfare across society.

Let me certainly not be heard to denounce reason! But today we are learning far more about the nature and importance of emotion.

Growing up as a girl in Virginia in the 1960s and 1970s, I heard loud and clear that women were emotional and men were rational. Woe betide the woman who allowed herself to get emotional or passionate in an argument. She was reinforcing the reigning stereotype of her sex. Equally dangerous was to rely on gut feeling—or women's intuition. Indeed, I often did just that to reach a conclusion—what Nobel Laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls thinking fast—but learned to express it with a logical argument.

40 years later, moral psychologist Jonathan Haight argues that the entire model of cognition and emotion as separate processes is wrong. Emotions, he writes, are themselves a “kind of information processing,” honed over millions of years of evolution. The real distinction is between two kinds of cognition: intuition—“the dozens or hundreds of rapid, effortless moral judgments and decisions that we all make every day,” and reasoning; between automatic processes of perception, intuition, and emotion and controlled processes of conscious thought. Moreover, these automatic processes are the elephant—driving most of what we do. Reason is merely the rider, typically rationalizing decisions made by the elephant after the fact.

So let us revise our views of strength and weakness, higher and lower, and men and women. Women have simply been more honest about where their views come from for all these centuries, while men were clothing those same intuitions in the rational robes of logic.

The Enlightenment, however had a point, for all that it was the product of a set of relatively affluent European men. They were fighting for a world of knowledge, trade, meritocracy and the middle class. The tools of reason do not depend on rank, fortune, or even birth. They depend on education and an opening of the mind to people unlike ourselves and perspectives unlike our own.

That tradition of openness, broadmindedness, and reasoned debate seems under threat today on many of our campuses, swept aside by tides of passion, outrage and moral injury. For many observers, reason and emotion are clearly at odds, and reason must prevail. Yet here again, we need a deeper understanding of how reason and emotion combine and intertwine.

Words can hurt, long and deep. As many of our philosophers and legal scholars have reasoned, language upholds and indeed entrenches entire structures of power. 

In the end, however, words hurt less and less finally than bullets. When I taught Civil Procedure at Harvard Law School, I would begin my class with a quote from a legal scholar: “civil procedure is the etiquette of ritualized battle.”  Argument and reason are the weapons we choose and use to avoid physical violence. Those of us who study foreign affairs, following in the tradition of great Indianans like Lee Hamilton and Richard Lugar, know that the peoples of the world who suffer death and destruction in war and civil strife long for a world in which the pen IS mightier than the sword.

Yet emotion plays a critical role here as well. Reason works much better when the underlying emotion is acknowledged and accepted. Seeing, hearing, and feeling the anguish of Americans who live in communities where they fear the guns of authority as much as the denizens of war-torn societies do must come first. Imagining YOUR child shot for a misdemeanor, for being impulsive and stupid and making poor decisions—in short, for being a teenager—is just as essential to moving forward as a society as open debate about causes and solutions. Politics and policy require both reason and emotion.

What is education for? Today we have a different answer. To grow and flourish as human beings, to cultivate the gardens of our minds, hearts, and souls. To learn not only to reason, but also to feel, to tap and acknowledge our emotions, with all their component parts, and give them the room and respect they deserve. As we come to understand the fullness of our own humanity, we are better able to see and connect to the humanity of others. Together, a world of infinite possibility awaits.