A curriculum on love

The standard curriculum of schooling is a curriculum of the outer life. It is a curriculum for the world of work and public life, seeking to cultivate a keen mind and effective intellectual skills. This is appropriately practical. Few would question this. And it has always been this way in America, going back to the days of the one room 19th century schoolhouse. I wonder, though, while we so earnestly attend to developing productive workers and citizens, if we might also find a way to support the education of the inner life. Where in their unfolding growth do our children learn about the realm of dreams, the contours of grief, the light of intuition, the sense of connection to the rivers? I wonder, for example, would we ever consider a curriculum on love?

A lot of people might react viscerally against such an idea. Love is private and a school is a place of public knowledge. A parent once reported me to the school district when she read her daughter’s journal entry on the topic I suggested “What is the color of love?” It is interesting to consider that we would shield from study what people profess is the most important thing in their lives. Love might well be the most primary of human experiences, from the bonding at one end of life within the womb to its final demise when a child weeps at her dying parent’s bedside. Love pervades experience: love of family, partner, friend, pet, the earth, the divine. Is it so radical a notion that we study what anchors our being? Love (however that might actually be defined) is a compelling and deeply challenging subject for study: complex, rich, transformative, difficult and painful. It is a deep existential concern that can be explored with multi-disciplinary perspectives, through philosophy, psychology, biology, history, literature, and theology. It has all the gravitas of any topic the academy can offer.

I recall the first day of the love unit in the high school psychology class I taught when 22 students and I sat in a circle to discuss the question “What is intimacy?” The week before I had proposed we deviate from the traditional and somewhat clinical curricular unit on emotion and instead do a unit specifically on love. Certain girls got demonstrably excited (maybe a chance to share in the open air what was spoken only in hushed conversations and leather bound journals) while others, especially the boys, seemed impassive or slightly unsteadied. This is good, I thought. Successful education should subvert the status quo. I made it clear at the outset it would be serious, no spending our time sitting around reading Beyonce lyrics or discussing how to get a date.

The resulting discussion of our outré question was profound. Over many years of teaching I have found that when posing the right well-timed question that touches a personal chord and combining it with skillful facilitation, a discussion with everyday high school kids can magically ascend at moments to the level of a Stanford seminar. These kids deftly wove in proto-literary references to U2 and Twilight and offered questions that gradually expanded the philosophical depth.

We got onto the sub-question can you be intimate with a stranger. Somebody asked whether if your car breaks down on a long stretch of highway in Nevada where no one else is around and a guy stops to help you and you both get your hands dirty and then he stays with you while you wait for the tow truck and while waiting you both somehow get to talking about how you love your kids, is that intimacy? A lot of the students had something to say about this. We also talked about self-intimacy (which provoked scattered laughter), how maybe standing in the rain in July under an open sky tasting the drops was something like love. The next day one of those enthusiastic girls came up to me and confided she felt freer. She always thought intimacy meant sex. Now she knew it could be so much more. I thought to myself I probably didn’t learn such things until I was 24. Some people never do. I decided we were going in the right direction.

A study of love doesn’t have to be this freewheeling. In fact, there already exists curriculum on love and it is hardly avant-garde. It’s the psychology programs at universities. They don’t often use the word love, but they do analyze theories of love relationships. Clinical classes teach students to help others in navigating love relationships, romantic and familial mainly. Seminaries add another layer, training students to do pastoral work and help people explore spiritual love. But school age students generally don’t have exposure at their corresponding level to academic psychology, although high schools often offer introductory psychology courses like the one I taught for juniors and seniors.

Challenging curriculum can be created at different developmental levels for students in the whole K-12 range that could employ various subject skills. As a starting point students at any age could explore the question “What is love?” Second graders might read stories such as fairly tales through the lens of that question. Everybody in education talks these days about critical thinking. I can’t think of a more critical question for second graders to engage than “Did the prince really love Cinderella?” They teach that in undergraduate literature classes, how to read against the text.

Upper elementary and middle school students could also read stories at their respective levels which have themes of love. So many books contain these themes, but teachers rarely bring them into the open. A classic story, readable by middle school kids as well as soft-hearted adults is The Little Prince, in which the young prince falls in love with a narcissistic rose. In considering her self-involved and mendacious behavior, the question again appears is this really love?

Literature is a wonderful vehicle for raising such a question, but I think even young children are also ready for authentic psychological study. For example, they could learn about the parts of the brain that light up (on a PET scan) when someone gets a hug. They could learn about that seminal research study showing baby monkeys developed greater attachment to a wire mesh mother figure covered by terry cloth than an equivalent wire mother holding a bottle of milk. These students could explore the implications of an experiment that suggests physical affection is more important than nourishment in inducing bonding. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that 5th graders can do cross-cultural anthropology, which is what they would be doing if they compared patterns of how mothers sleep with their babies across cultures worldwide.

Love doesn’t have to be a soft, amorphous topic of study. It can be explored under the lens of science. I had my students study empirical data and theory as well as do field research. I had them, for example, collect data through a survey asking groups of different ages to define love and then analyze the results developmentally. How do middle aged adults define love compared to middle school children and what are the resulting implications? This was a study in data analysis as much as it was a query on love. Students can look at love through the biological lens as well. What is the chemical composition of oxytocin and where is it secreted? What happens if you compare the brain activity of a person kissing to one of that person only fantasizing about the act?

One can also study love in English and history. Literature, filled as it is from Homer to Toni Morrison with explorations of love, is ripe territory for probing. I think sometimes classroom love analysis in literature could go a little deeper. High school English programs, for example, have adopted Romeo and Juliet as one of their standard texts depicting love, a play that lends the subject only superficial treatment with its two adolescent protagonists floating more in infatuating metaphors than real intimacy. Perhaps Othello would work better. Can a man that frenzied by jealousy be said to love? The question is echoed by a contemporary short story “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” (portrayed recently in the film Birdman) in which a man kills himself over a lost love. Goethe wrote about suicide over love a few centuries earlier in The Lies of Young Werther. In recent years, Toni Morrison depicts a more extreme moment when in Beloved Sethe murders her own daughter to save her from the slave catchers. Is love compatible with annihilation? Such a question provides another angle of entry into the topic than science.

History offers a chance to understand how the experience and practices of love have evolved over time. In those hefty high school courses on Western Civilization, within the traditional broad-scoped material on political power, geography and the arts, there could be a honing in to a study of something like courtship practices through the centuries. Or standard topics like feudalism could be reframed. How is the relationship between a knight and his vassal a form of filial love? If a teacher doesn’t want to deviate into such material, students might have the opportunity to do so through their research papers. The topics are hardly trivial. They are microcosms of human experience that illuminate larger historical patterns.

These kinds of academic studies through psychology, biology, literature and history might seem misguided to some parents and educators, but probably not controversial. What might provoke resistance, however, is if we began to consider a curriculum that actually aims to help students examine love in a personal way. What if we asked that sophomore reading Othello to go beyond evaluating Othello’s feelings, turn the lens in on himself and reflect, perhaps in a private journal, whether jealousy ever impinges on his close relationships? This is a potentially explosive proposal. It involves opening the realm of the private. Concerned parents might call it unwarranted intrusion. In this country we do not constitutionally mandate a separation of emotion and state, but many people would say that to ask students to inwardly explore love and other emotions, is akin to asking them to explore their religious beliefs. A large philosophical question emerges about what aspects of the human experience should school learning touch and where boundaries should be drawn between public and private?

There is precedent for exploring emotions in a school context going back to the 1970s with the introduction of affective curriculum. Particularly in elementary schools teachers have helped their students to learn not only about the nature of emotions such as anger, sadness and love, but to apply skills to manage them. The average parent would probably not raise an eyebrow hearing that her second grade son read Dr. Seuss’ My Many Colored Days and then was asked to free draw one color mood. Often discussion of emotions is framed in the context of relationships. If you are in a fight with your sister and getting angry, what can you do to work with your anger? Conflict resolution has been a staple of curriculums in elementary, middle, and high schools for years. Sometimes this material is taught as part of a health education curriculum.

The interest in affective curriculum has increased with the advent of the concept of emotional intelligence. Harvard educational theorist Howard Gardner proposed the idea in the 1980s that there are at least seven distinct types of intelligence and that two, interpersonal and intrapersonal, involve awareness of emotion. Journalist Daniel Goleman popularized the notion in his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence. In this framework, having conscious awareness of exactly what you are feeling when you say you are feeling love is a form of intelligence.

The growth of the increasingly research-based affective curriculum is making its way into elementary schools, but we tend to see such curriculum fade by high school. We teach little kids to be kind, develop empathy skills, and raise their self-esteem. It’s okay in a discussion on global warming to say you love Mother Earth or draw a picture of Mommy and Daddy holding hands. But in our culture there is a belief that somehow by the time you reach about age 15, education should be an exclusively intellectual experience. I have always thought that high schools have a lot to learn or relearn from elementary schools.

Affective curriculum, that might have a place for students from kindergarten to graduate school, can fit into a broader instructional picture. Whether learning to listen with attentive care, looking at an MRI of the emotional brain center, researching how Hindu gods expressed romantic desire, or comparing the wedding ceremonies of Scandanavians and Masai, to study love is much more than to study a particular emotional experience. It is to poise oneself along the deep boundary of the human experience where one can investigate where the biological, psychological, relational, historical and philosophical interconnect all while gaining greater self-awareness and perhaps a few tools for walking the human world with a somewhat surer footing. I wouldn’t want to claim too much for one small out of the mainstream instructional unit, but perhaps such study could help heal in an engaging way the traditional educational split between inner and outer, academic and personal. Maybe we could help our kids become a little more whole.