I was at a training event for PhD researchers over the last two days and as usual, I had a lot of thoughts which I bounced off over people and which they helped me realise from the things that they were saying. I will save some of my other observations for another day, but just want to focus on one thing which struck me. Incidentally, I will mention at the outset that I am writing quickly before I settle down for the night with a novel that I am reading for the third time as part of my research project.
I was talking to a fellow English Literature researcher. She had thick glasses and brown hair and was wearing her name tag on her skirt for some reason best known to herself. We were working in pairs during the session to discuss learning. I must confess, I have already forgotten the exact nature of the context, and thus of the digression that I led her into. However, here it is. I suggested to the young lady that the West, particularly our English literature, focuses too much on rational learning. Other types of learning are excluded. I suggested that one type of learning that we don’t concentrate on giving the students is emotional learning.
The lady asked me what I meant and I will explain it to you as I explained it to her. I used a particular example to demonstrate my point. One of the more famous of recent photographs in our history is the image of the young migrant child who died while attempting to make the journey into Europe. This photograph provoked a U-turn from the government, which decided to take in more refugees from Syria as a response to the electorate’s awakened empathy for the plight of refugees on encountering the photograph. This is a case of emotional learning because the public and the media were hardened to their plight beforehand and said that they could not accommodate them, but became more sympathetic and began to emphasise with the Others after seeing the photograph. The photograph had taught them empathy and they had learnt how to have a particular emotion.
In English Literature, we feel empathy with characters and we have emotional responses to texts. Some of us will even cry for the plight of a character or if they conduct beautiful actions. We feel and identify with a hero and their feelings. Sometimes, our muscles even twitch in sympathy and we have powerful, visceral reactions in our stomachs. These things are all caused by emotions and English literature is an exploration of emotion, an enabler of emotion. If we reflect on how and why these emotions are manufactured, if we explore where the emotion-making machine is taking us to an endpoint, our emotions could become more intelligent. Emotional learning is also important because we should think more with our emotions and not less. Empathy is sadly lacking in the world and more people need to be taught it.
You will perhaps wonder how emotional learning could be taught. After all, it seems to be an intensely personal experience. However, the photograph of the drowned migrant boy would appear to indicate otherwise. The learning could be tailor made. We could ask students to think of a film or a book or a song that inspired them, or touched them deeply. We could ask them to investigate why this was so. For example, someone might only really be moved deeply by cultural products if the characters are of a particular gender, race or age. While this should not be discouraged, they should ask themselves why they can only empathise with these groups and not others. Emotional learning would thus challenge deeply held biases and reveal the barriers to empathy with others that would otherwise have gone unrecognised, barriers that the student could work to overcome.
I hope my idea can be built upon and, even more hopefully, that I am only reiterating what others have thought before me.