Reason, Emotion, Thinking, and Writing in School

by Peter Smagorinsky, The University of Georgia

Writers Who Care….The name of this blog suggests an assumption that emotions are foundational to writing, and I’d add, to living life. You’d never know it, however, from the ways in which schools view writing as a form of “cold cognition”: purely analytic reasoning, unadulterated by underlying feelings, which are believed in the context of school to be illogical and inappropriate. The analysis of the most moving of literature must itself be dry as a bone, with students often forbidden from using “I” to express their interpretations, as if their papers are written by an “objective” observer….who doesn’t care at all.


But not so fast. This summer I read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt addresses how people with radically different ideologies all claim that reason is on their side, and that any dissenting view is illogical, founded on weak assumptions, and poorly, perhaps even emotionally (and thus irrationally), argued. He argues that  philosopher David Hume was essentially right in saying in 1739 that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend any other office than to serve and obey them.” Rather than rational thinking producing logical thinking, people respond from the gut and then come up with post-hoc justifications for their deeply-felt responses to the complexities in their environments. They are hardly the only people to have asserted the emotional dimension of human thought; a century ago, Dewey, Vygotsky, and others made similar points. And Haidt himself is remiss in overlooking Carol Gilligan (1982) and the major body of work on women’s psychology, which would support his claims about the role of emotions and relationships in moral reasoning. Writing and emotion have been at the heart of my own writing for some time now.

I don’t know much, but I do know something about schools and how they operate, and so I am pretty familiar with what they value and often require of teachers and students. Like a lot of teacher educators, I’ve seen a lot of schools first-hand. As a student, even though my parents only moved once while I was under their roof, I attended 3 elementary schools (plus a year when my overcrowded elementary school sent a few classes, including mine, to the local high school where they had a spare classroom), two junior highs, and two high schools. This constant movement was a consequence of growing up in rapidly expanding Fairfax County, Virginia, in the baby-boom 50s and 60s, and being enrolled in private schools twice by my parents, first to start me ahead of schedule because of my advanced size and reading ability (successful) and later to try to make me a more serious student (not so much).

After college I got into education accidentally: I began subbing in the Trenton, NJ area schools and worked as a hall monitor for a year, working in about 20 different schools, from very urban to very rural. I then got certified to teach (teaching in both a Southside Chicago pullout program and then student teaching at Martin Luther King, Jr. HS) and taught full-time in 3 different Chicago area schools; and later, while a doctoral student, subbed in about 20 city schools and also supervised student teachers in several more as a way to keep food on the table. Since going into teacher education, I’ve conducted research in, and also supervised, both student teachers and first-year teachers, in quite a few more schools in Oklahoma and Georgia. And I had 2 kids whose own schools I spent time in as a parent. I’ve seen a lot of different schools over the years, many quite different from each other and ultimately, quite similar as well.

In general, U.S. schools that I know through personal experience and over 40 years of reading educational writing are indebted to the European Enlightenment and its accompanying Scientific Revolution and Age of Reason. The notion of cold cognition, liberated from the contaminating influence of emotion, guides the very technical approach through which literature is typically taught. Schools are run according to the chimera of logical positivism as the principal way through which ideas are understood, even in the humanities, where meaning tends to be ambiguous and open to interpretation. Even though stories tend to be fraught with meaning, emotions, values, moral dilemmas, political intrigue, and much else, what gets emphasized, courtesy of old regimes like New Criticism and current fads like the Common Core State Standards, is often the technical part of writing through the analysis of the elements of literary construction. Sterile literary analysis of technique has triumphed over emotional engagement with meaning, which from what I understand is what writers write for and readers read for.

This technical, emotionally dry value has become instituted in federal policies that view test scores as more important than how people feel about being in school, a position I’ve questioned often in my writing for the public. In classrooms, their heartfelt beliefs and passions about learning must be jettisoned so that they may think unencumbered by emotion, which Haidt argues is simply not possible.

The belief in cold cognition is also behind—along with cold-hearted budget-cutting efforts—the drive to eliminate “soft” disciplines like art and theater, where the passions are central to the whole purpose of participation. This emphasis on facts and skills is related to the belief that only those cold, logical fields like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics should have a role in public education, and further should allow for differential, favorable tuition rates in college.

A close look at any of these fields, however, shows that their logical foundation is inseparable from an emotional element, one that Haidt argues is not simply present, but paramount. That’s why we have math anxiety, intensely emotional disagreements about climate change and evolution, aesthetic values in engineering, stock markets driven by fear and hope, technology that allows for creative expression, and other emotional and seemingly irrational responses to the purportedly hard-and-fast world of STEM. If these “hard sciences” are also emotional, how can human expression through writing be treated as coldly logical?

My public essays have often asserted why it matters to pay careful attention to how teachers and students feel about being in school. How they feel provides the foundation for how they will engage with curriculum and instruction. If school is made into an impersonal, cold, uncaring place, then it’s hard to get teachers or students to care about each other or the academic disciplines that bring them together. When writing expressively is reduced to writing properly, then it’s no wonder that kids feel that school is irrelevant to their lives.

If schools ignore the passions that Hume identified as the foundation of cognition, they lose sight of what makes an education worthwhile: the human investment in work that generates productive minds engaged in inquiries that matter to them. That investment of time, affect, and dedicated effort can’t come without recognizing the emotional dimensions–to Haidt and Hume, the emotional foundations–of thinking and writing. Kids don’t return for Homecoming because they learned how to diagram sentences or write five-paragraph themes. They return because they felt emotionally bonded to the school community. Writers who care need an educational setting that validates the psychological fact that whatever they think and compose is a fundamentally emotional process. Educational policies and traditions predicated on the Age of Reason, masquerading as having moved above and beyond the vicissitudes of emotion, are in fact archaic and misguided. Writers who care can’t function in sterile environments. But as long as accountability defined by test scores and machine-graded essays rules curriculum and instruction, we will remain in the Dark Ages.


Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Haidt, J. (2011). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York, NY: Pantheon.


Peter Smagorinsky is Distinguished Research Professor of English Education at The University of Georgia. He is the recipient of the Sylvia Scribner Award from AERA in 2012, and of NCTE’s  David H. Russell Research Award for Distinguished Research in the Teaching of English in 2013 for Vygotsky and Literacy Research: A Methodological Framework.
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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.


5 thoughts on “Reason, Emotion, Thinking, and Writing in School

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