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Mohandas Gandhi was once asked, “What do you think of Western civilization?” His reply: “I think it would be a good idea.”

That’s precisely what I think about social-emotional learning.

Social-emotional learning is all the rage. Its goal: to enhance students’ self-awareness, social awareness and relationship skills; to help them work effectively in teams; and to strengthen their self-regulatory skills and capacity for responsible decision making.

It seeks to boost students’ emotional intelligence and empathy; strengthen grit, determination and persistence; nurture a growth mind-set; and cultivate an ability to self-manage emotions.

Sounds good to me.

But social-emotional learning has, not surprisingly, become yet another front in the culture wars.

At first glance, that seems odd, since the purpose of social-emotional learning sounds eminently conventional and totally uncontroversial: to promote students’ social, emotional and character development.

But everything is fair game in today’s Kulturkampf, as a Parents' Bill of Rights pressed by Indiana’s attorney general Todd Rokita makes clear. “SEL programs,” he wrote, “represent a fundamental shift in the role of teachers from educators to therapists and expand the reach of government into domains of the family.”

I wholeheartedly disagree. The pandemic has inflicted a heavy emotional toll on students and faculty alike, exacerbating anxiety, grief, loss and stress; reducing social interactions; and contributing to feelings of disconnection, depression and despair. Social and emotional learning offers one way to support respond to the pandemic’s toll.

But if we at the college level are truly serious about social-emotional learning, wouldn’t it make sense to treat emotions in a rigorously academic manner?

In K-12 schools, the goals of social-emotional learning tend to be narrowly instrumental.

  • To help students understand the impact of emotions on their behavior.
  • To teach students how to regulate and control emotions.
  • To help students recognize and name emotions, both their own and those of others.

All good. All helpful.

But in college, shouldn’t the purpose be much more ambitious? After all, we live in the golden age of the study of emotions.

The study of emotions is fast becoming integral to the study of the humanities and social sciences. Here are some ways that those disciplines are already engaging with the emotions:

  • The history of emotions: Major topics in the history of emotions include how affective feelings and emotional expression and language have changed over time, how various historical eras have shaped the definition and expression of particular emotions, how certain emotional experiences have changed over the centuries, and how collective emotions have influenced historical events.
  • The anthropology of emotions: Among the topics studied by anthropologists of emotions are how the language of emotions and the meanings, affective resonances, experience, and expression of emotions vary cross-culturally.
  • The philosophy of emotions: Key questions addressed by the philosophy of emotion include the extent to which emotions are social constructions or products of conscious or unconscious judgments or appraisals, the relationship between reason and various emotions, and whether morality is based on emotions or reason.
  • The sociology of emotions: This subfield looks at the influence of socio-cultural contexts on emotions and their expression, including the social and cultural constraints on the expression of such emotions as anger, fear, grief, indignation or joy.
  • The psychology and neuroscience of emotions: Important topics in the scientific study of emotions include emotions’ biological, evolutionary and hormonal roots; emotion’s functions; emotions’ somatic, affective and cognitive impact; and the impact of feedback upon emotions.
  • The literary and artistic study of emotions: Central issues include how authors, artists and composers convey emotions, the variety of emotions expressed in these works, and the audience’s emotional and aesthetic experience of a particular work and the role of emotion in appraising art, music and literature.

A new book by the theoretical physicist and science writer Leonard Mlodinow, Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking, offers an absorbing introduction to the scholarly battle over the origins and nature of emotions, the relationship between thinking and emotions, and whether emotions are productive or counterproductive.

Although you won’t learn the full range of human emotions—for that, try literature—you will learn a great deal about how psychologists characterize emotions, for example, in terms of:

  • automaticity (whether an emotional reaction occurs with or without conscious prompting)
  • persistence (whether the emotion quickly subsides or lingers)
  • scalability and emotional valence (an emotion’s intensity of an emotion from pleasant to unpleasant, attractive to aversive, or irked to livid)
  • generalizability (the links between an emotion and particular triggers or responses)

If I were to list my students’ basic needs, somewhere on that register I’d include their emotional needs:

  • To find words to describe and communicate their emotions, to make the emotions more legible.
  • To become more self-conscious about the triggers for certain of their emotional responses.
  • The need for strategies to master and influence their own emotions.

If you are a humanist or social scientist, why not integrate the study of emotions into your courses, even as you do more to make your classes more emotionally supportive, by bonding with your students, nurturing a sense of belonging and helping them develop the social-emotional skills of empathy, resilience and collaboration.

Want a shortcut? Go to the Emotions Lab, where you can learn a great deal about the history of such emotional concepts as anxiety, nostalgia, compassion and loneliness and take part in serious games, including one that involves matching emotions to historical images. And read a fascinating essay by the Brooklyn-based writer Meghan Racklin on the failed attempts to taxonomize human emotions.

A college may be a bastion of reason, but shouldn’t it also be a place for feeling, sentiment, compassion and, yes, emotion?

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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