On Limerence

David Brooks, in his latest piece in The New York Times has covered a fascinating piece outlining the basis of my philosophies of living, learning, and teaching: “The New Humanism.”

Brooks exposes the individualistic, materialistic, uber-rational philosophies of the past and present as single-faceted paradigms which ignore much of what is true about human nature. Brooks notes that this focus “has created a distortion in our culture. We emphasize things that are rational and conscious and are inarticulate about the processes down below,” to our collective detriment. In particular, Brooks recognizes that “When we raise our kids, we focus on the traits measured by grades and SAT scores. But when it comes to the most important things like character and how to build relationships, we often have nothing to say.” The message to students, which often becomes internalized, is that you are the sum of the numbers, or letter grades, and your worth is tangibly related to the outcomes. This message takes years to unwind, and that’s only for the lucky ones. Some people wind up tangled in the web of conflicting messages between innate human desires for social success or pleasing loved ones and their internal feelings of boredom, hatred, or disinterest in what they have been told makes them valuable. Who likes taking the SAT, and what happens when it’s over (answer: the GRE)? Who is motivated endlessly by a score; everyone gives up on Galaga eventually, because the numbers begin to look alike, or be meaningless. In fact, intrinsic motivation is identifiable most often in non-measurable forms.

In particular, Brooks points out that

research illuminates a range of deeper talents, which span reason and emotion and make a hash of both categories:

Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.

Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings.

Metis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations.

Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.

Limerence: This isn’t a talent as much as a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or the love of God. Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others.

Equipose and metis are essential “talents,” or, more appropriately, learnable skills for most people. Courses like Advanced Placement Literature & Composition are arguably useful not because they make learners smarter, but because they lead learners to reflect and monitor their own understandings and skills, changing as they individually must: equipose. Or, useful because the course demands higher order thinking skills and integration of complex sets of data in the form of texts for synthesizing new understandings: metis (at least partially, or within a given set). If taught correctly, a course builds a sense of honest, authentic engagement, possibly limerence: loss within the challenge of a task, questing for Phaedrus’s Quality. But, the AP falters badly in May, testing, assigning a number. I love my task, I’m playing the game, and questing for improvement, but I’m not going to score perfectly on the AP test, so how likely am I to give myself to the task? To experience limerence?

If it were me, and it has been, the answer is not bloody likely. So the tests, the measurements, don’t help honest, prolonged engagement, but rather feed into our “rational,” materialistic selves. The symptoms are cramming, learning disposably, and widespread misery. Oh, how I wish for schools in which humans teach humans, explicitly, in which we respect our different strengths, foibles, blind spots, and in which we all seek to become more happy, healthy, and complete humans together through this shared process called school.

Written with limerence.

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