Superintendent’s corner: Films illustrate why we should champion reason over emotion
January 30, 2019
I'm delighted that two musicals have been nominated as finalists for the Academy Awards this year: Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born. I'm all for superhero movies, but rather than the epic clash between good and evil, it's great to see movies spotlighting the triumph of the arts and the epic philosophical struggle of balancing reason and emotion as individuals, institutions, and societies — a challenge we face in our schools as well.
While both movies tell the story of a struggling hero, they also contrast two philosophical traditions in which their music is rooted. If I were still teaching history, I would teach my student to construct knowledge through empirical reasoning, while recognizing that events move us emotionally. Both are inseparable and invaluable parts of our world and ourselves.
Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic about Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury, has musical roots in the Enlightenment. As the movie's title track intones, it's an homage to Galileo, the father of modern science who inaugurated the Age of Reason, the philosophical tradition that put reason back on a pedestal after centuries ruled by religious dogma.
The Enlightenment characterized logic as the essence of the human condition, epitomized by Descartes' famous line, "I think, therefore I am." We can see the 200-year arc from Mozart to Mercury, not only in the operatic elements and references to Figaro, but in the precise structure of the composition, which is complex, intricate, and intellectual.
A Star is Born tells the story of a fictitious hero, Jackson Main, an aging rock star driven by his emotions. It belongs more to the Romantic movement, which celebrated the individual as an outcast and a throwback to a pre-scientific and pre-industrial era. Its music, at least that performed by male lead Bradley Cooper, is dark, raw, and mysterious. Unlike the intricate interdependence of Queen's music, Jackson Maine both declares and personifies in his opening song, "I'm all alone by the wayside." The movie's hit song "Shallow," rails against modernity: "Tell me somethin', girl, are you happy in this modern world?" Technically simple but emotionally deep, his music speaks to the heart.
While both movies feature tragic male leads, one finds redemption through reflection, while the other is unable to escape his emotional malaise. One overcomes social isolation and re-integrates with his family and friends; the other rejects the love of others and dies alone. The fate of these two heroes has apt historical and psychological analogies.
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Historically, the Age of Reason brought us medical cures and democratic government. The legacy of the Romantic movement is much more problematic: It inspired great art and literature and appreciation of nature, but also the nationalism of the Third Reich and the resurgence of white supremacy.
As Mario Cuomo famously quipped, "You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose," which can be paraphrased as, you get elected by appealing to the emotions, but it's better to govern by reason.
We have psychologized philosophy today, and now mostly talk about these twisting currents of reason and emotion in terms of "brain science." We characterize the prefrontal cortex in the frontal lobe as the center of reason in the brain, and the amygdala, buried deep in the limbic system, as the center of emotion.
I wouldn't go so far as to characterize Freddie Mercury as a master of prefrontal functioning, but, at the pivotal point in the movie, he uses the rational parts of his brain to control his impulses, reflect on his mistakes, show remorse, and moderate his social interactions. The film shows him staging his comeback, in part, for an altruistic cause. Bradley Cooper's character personifies the impulses of the amygdala: love, fear, anger, and desire. Without the prefrontal controls to channel his emotions, he meets his demise.
These are just movies, and they weren't written in reference to one another. However, their coincidental release allows for juxtaposition. Reason and emotion are both essential to humanity. But these two movies illustrate that when reason dominates, the hero triumphs, while a surrender to unbridled emotion results in defeat.
This warning rings true in politics and public discourse today, where we are on a perilous course if facts don't matter as much as bluster. Today, the Romantic cult of personality and self-interest challenges the Enlightenment dedication to scientific reason.
It also puts an enormous responsibility on our schools, not to teach any ideology, but to help students to develop their minds and their brains – to be guided by reason. This entails teaching them the Enlightenment rules of evidence and reflection, and the cognitive skills we call executive functioning and perseverance.
Of course, we also value social-emotional learning, and teach Romantic values such as joy and compassion. Together, the rational and emotional make a whole person.
As Freddie Mercury sang, the road to becoming a champion requires self-mastery, perseverance, and reflecting on one's mistakes: "And bad mistakes / I've made a few / I've had my share of sand kicked in my face / But I've come through." Even this foot-stomping Queen rocker illustrates that we need reason and reflection to become champions.
Rob Stein is superintendent of Roaring Fork Schools.
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