Fear and Education

by Tim McIntosh

A group of children began spontaneously dancing at an Irish music concert I recently attended. The children pranced, spun, and promenaded across the dance floor. As they danced, my attention was diverted to a young girl sitting nearby. I sensed her wanting to join them: Her eyes followed the dancers, and her hands mimicked their moves. She longed to join them but feared rejection. In the end, she remained seated by her parents, defeated by the threat of defeat.

Will I be accepted or refused? Every day Gutenberg students bring this question into class. Like the young girl, they want to realize their hopes while remaining safe. They want to rise in the estimation of their classmates and teachers while never being thought stupid, ridiculous, or out-of-date. This essay describes how students navigate this dual hope of achievement without risk in academic discussions.

Student discussions demonstrate a central theme in our world. Every marriage, friendship, and partnership is shaped by a tug-of-war in every heart: Will I be recognized or rejected? The joy of recognition is so powerful that we dare rise from our seat and try to dance. Yet the possibility of rejection is so painful that we often, like the young girl, remain seated.

To remain safe, students develop what I’ll call “personas” that allow them to assert their beliefs and achieve recognition while not appearing ignorant. Students adopt personas depending upon their personality, maturity, courage, knowledge, and standing amongst their classmates. Below is a brief taxonomy of personas I’ve witnessed over many years. I’ve portrayed them during an imagined discussion of Karl Marx.

The Ironic Jester cocks an eyebrow, leans back in his chair, and speaks in a dry, bemused voice. “Heh, you really think,” he says, “that Karl Marx had good points?” The Jester hides behind an ironic stance that neither believes nor disbelieves. You could attend four years of school with the Jester and never know what he stands for.

The Obsessive Qualifier, rather than frankly stating his belief that Marx had good points, says, “Let me first say that I am not a Communist or a Socialist. Nor do I favor sprawling bureaucracies. And I am against Stalin’s abuses. But what I believe is that some people believe that maybe Marx possibly had some good points perhaps.” Rather than state his beliefs frankly, the Qualifier hides behind a thick forest of qualifications, stipulations, and conditions.

The Silent Hider has plenty to say. On occasion, she bursts with ideas and feelings. But the Hider is so sensitive to rejection that she buries her thoughts inside. The Hider never causes arguments and thus is often overlooked. Because the Hider rarely speaks, she is rarely challenged. Thus, she need not overcome challenges; this inertia thwarts her growth.

The Name-Dropper makes all arguments from beneath the mask of “Important Thinkers.” Rather than making a claim like, “I believe Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism,” the Name-Dropper masks his true beliefs under the names of others: “Not only do Horkheimer and Adorno accept Marx’s critique of capitalism, ecologists like Jan Stenbright and George McPherson prove that capitalism is the driving force behind the evisceration of the planet.” The Name-Dropper sounds like the smartest person in the class. But he lacks personal judgment—the ability to say, “I don’t care what others say; I believe this is true.”

The Obscurantist will not be understood, no matter how hard you try. You could repeat verbatim the Obscurantist’s words back to him, and he would reply, “That’s not exactly what I meant.” If he claims his words, he is accountable for them (something the Obscurantist does not want).

The Spiritualist, when facing a threatening conversation, bootstraps into a world of hazy mystical maxims. Rather than say, “I think Karl Marx was wrong,” she says, “The Scriptures teach that all things work together for the good”; or (if she’s from the Northwest) she will quote an obscure tenth-century Sufi poet. The Spiritualist rarely argues except to argue that people ought not argue.

Finally, there is the Loud Warrior who hides behind volume and aggression. The Warrior believes the best defense is a good offense and often begins his remarks with a preemptive strike: “How dare you believe Karl Marx had good points! His ideas gave rise to Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot! Anyone who believes Karl Marx had good points puts himself in league with butchers!” Rather than be thought small, the Loud Warrior gets big.

Not only have I watched others play these roles, I play these roles. A few weeks ago, my friend Erik visited Gutenberg. (Erik and his wife graduated from Gutenberg and served a few years as our house managers.) What started as a mild disagreement escalated into an argument. At some point (hard to pinpoint where) the argument took a turn. I felt small and unimportant, and so I got big, loud, and aggressive. I had become a Loud Warrior.

I framed my reactions in intellectual language. I accused Erik of “failing to understand my point” and “putting me in a box” and “not seeing my distinction.” At one point Erik asked, “Why are you irritated?” But I refused to look inside. I took satisfaction in remaining angry and aggressive. (The sad irony: All this happened while preparing the essay you are now reading.)

During the last twenty years, cognitive researchers have peered inside brains. During my argument with Erik, an MRI or CAT scan would have shown the limbic center of my brain lighting up. During times of acute stress or fear, the limbic center takes over. A phrase has entered everyday vocabulary to describe our brain’s first response to acute anxiety or fear: “Fight, Flight, or Freeze.” During times of fear and pointed stress, our first response is to fight (like the Loud Warrior), to fly away (the Obscurantist, hiding his tracks), or freeze (the Silent Hider, hoping to disappear).

According to cognitive researchers, our brain’s first response to fear is not intellectual but physiological (i.e., sweaty palms, tightness in the shoulders, etc.). Next, the brain develops an emotion. Only after these first two responses can we achieve an intellectual response.

When I remember my argument with Erik, I recall this order: After I felt rejected, the nape of my neck tightened, my palms dampened, my vision telescoped; then came the heat of anger; and  afterwards, I began marshaling arguments. This response sequence occurred with amazing speed. Without reflecting, I could never see it.

Emotions cannot (indeed, ought not) be ignored during argument or classroom discussion. Any teacher or student hoping to become wise must address not just the intellect but the emotions as well. Before proceeding to discuss why this is so, I must address the broad chasm between the intellect and emotions that has existed in Western culture since the birth of the Enlightenment (mid-1600s).

During the Enlightenment, philosophers and scientists adopted Isaac Newton’s method of scientific inquiry. The model admired unbiased, distant, dispassionate reason. Hardly a generation later, the Romantics rebelled. The Romantics emphasized passion, artistry, and daring; they rejected Newton’s cold method and urged outpourings of individual authenticity. The early Enlightenment luminary, Voltaire (1694-1778), said Newton was “the greatest man who ever lived.” A generation later, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) said he wouldn’t trade five hundred Newtons for a single Shakespeare.

Although the terms “Enlightenment” and “Romantic” have been deposited into history books, Western culture remains divided. Evidence of this division can be seen in our education system. Our system is divided between the “hard sciences” (Enlightenment) and the “soft sciences” (Romantic), between “objective” research and “subjective” art.

This division is anti-human and foreign to the authors of Christian Scriptures. The Bible does not describe a person as a split between mind and emotions. Instead, we are called to faith in God with our whole person, our innermost being, our complete physical and spiritual life. Sometimes faithfulness demands emotional action: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). At other times, faithfulness demands intellectual action: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). But the Scriptures do not exhort us to divide emotions and intellect. On the contrary, we are called to serve God with our whole heart.

Some ancient and medieval approaches sought to interlace reason and emotions. According to Alain de Lille (1107-1203), a good education brings the head (the throne of the intellect) and the stomach (the throne of the passions) together to do business in the “chest.” (De Lille deeply influenced C.S. Lewis, as seen in Lewis’s essay “Men without Chests” in The Abolition of Man.) In this classical view, the intellect meets the emotions, not to eradicate them but to understand, shape, and order them. This approach treats students as whole beings, not as beings split between reason and emotion.

The Enlightenment/Romantic chasm continues to confuse modern teachers and students. Before entering the classroom, a student feels obliged to check his emotions outside the door (in a sort of emotional hat room). Emotions have no place inside class. Educators want benchmarks, standards, and measurable outcomes. Modern classrooms exist to sharpen the mind. If the student feels emotional, he ought to see a therapist.

There are two problems with barring emotions from the classroom. First, it’s impossible. When a student is concerned, his emotions are kindled. Barring his emotions from the classroom is analogous to protecting a swimmer by draining the pool of water. It’s simply impossible to bar emotions while keeping the classroom alive and flourishing.

The second problem: Bracketing emotions from the classroom is not only impossible, it is undesirable. Anyone capable of reflecting upon his internal state recognizes that his emotions shape his intellect just as his intellect shapes his beliefs. In other words, his intellect teaches him fear, anger, longing, and joy. Likewise, fear, anger, longing, and joy teaches his intellect. Thus, a good teacher does not prohibit emotions; on the contrary, she recognizes them and how to learn from them.

I will go farther: For the spiritually minded student/teacher, emotions can be the single biggest indicator of change in the inner life. More than any test, experiment, or essay, emotions portray movement within—dare I say it?—the soul. The goal of a good education is well applied knowledge, which is wisdom. Wisdom cannot occur without striving to understand my emotions and others’ emotions. Below are four truths that should guide teachers and students in classrooms:

Truth #1: The emotions and the intellect are not detached.

Last month I was visiting Carina (a former Gutenberg student) when her daughter Opal toddled into the room. Opal was crying. But soon after, Opal crawled into Carina’s lap and stopped crying. Why did she stop crying? Probably because her young mind had formed a very sensible association: When she was with mom, she was embraced, warm, well-fed, and protected. In short, Opal’s feelings were well-reasoned.

As a child matures, of course, her experience grows complicated. Her motivations expand beyond hunger, warmth, and pain. At the same time, her parents cease to merely provide, they also discipline. Sometimes the child is raised by bad parents: a father who drinks too much, a mother who smothers, a father who ignores. In response, the child adjusts her behavior. Her adjustments, if repeated often enough, become patterns for future behavior.

Cognitive researchers say that the brain reinforces patterns of behavior. The brain weaves neural pathways based on past behavior. If you “get big” (loud and aggressive) when you are afraid, the brain makes that pattern easier to follow. In other words, “get big” often enough, and your brain makes it easier to “get big” next time.

I once dated a woman (let’s call her June) whose father was a social alcoholic. One evening, she and I visited my parents’ house for an early dinner. When we left my parents’ house, June seemed frustrated. I asked why, but she wouldn’t tell me. During dessert I asked again, but she offered nothing. Finally, before dropping her at her apartment, I insisted she tell me. I expected the cause of her frustration was something insensitive I had said or her troubling boss at work. But what she said stunned me. With tears in her eyes she said, “It really bothers me that your parents don’t recycle.” At first, I was confused. Three hours of festering because my parents did not recycle? This seemed peculiar. But I remembered June had a bigger story: Because her father drank so much, his response to conflict ranged unpredictably. He might laugh, cry, or build a patio. His response to conflict was chaotic. Thus, from a young age, June learned to avoid chaos by avoiding conflict.

Every time we engage in a contentious discussion, we bring patterns we have developed from family life, convictions, and past relationships. To imagine we can bracket these emotions and just “be rational” is naïve.

Truth #2: Emotions are not random and chaotic.

I’ve seen good teachers flummoxed by emotions in the classroom for two reasons. First, emotions can seem random and chaotic. Fear, anger, and joy can boil up like bubbles rising from the deep before disappearing on the surface. Given the haphazard nature of emotions, a good teacher might think it best to ignore them.

Although emotions erupt at strange times from cryptic origins, they are not completely chaotic. Most of the time emotions can be understood by the person experiencing them. Students supplied with patience and courage can understand their emotions. Teachers can help a student learn by encouraging the student to inquire about his emotions. Imagine that Bradley speaks freely in class unless confronted by Jackson. A good teacher might (privately) ask Bradley, “I’ve noticed that when Jackson speaks up, you become silent. Why?” This question asks Bradley to look inside himself and learn. The question has an additional advantage. It invites Bradley to interpret his inner life. The question does not guarantee Bradley will interpret accurately, but it could begin a healthy habit.

The second reason good teachers seem reluctant to address emotions is because it seems intrusive. Good teachers know how dangerous it is to reach into a person’s interior life (especially from a position of authority). History’s most powerful despots had an ability to identify and abuse the longings felt deep in the human heart. For this reason, good teachers hesitate before pressing into a student’s emotions.

Two safeguards exist against emotional misinterpretation and manipulation. First, as mentioned above, teachers can help students see emotional patterns by allowing the student to inquire into and interpret the emotion himself. This not only prevents the teacher from controlling or pushing the student emotionally but also invites the student to explore and own his emotions. Consider the difference between these two questions:

  • “Brandon, why are you frustrated again?”
  • “Brandon, when you conjugate your Greek verbs, you grind your pencil into your paper. Why?”

The first question names the emotion. The second (better) question urges Brandon to inquire about and interpret his internal state. 1 By encouraging Brandon to understand himself, the teacher guards against misinterpreting or manipulating Brandon.

A second safeguard against emotional misinterpretation or control is this: love for the student. Teachers who love their students will naturally avoid manipulating, coercing, and controlling a student for their own ends.

Truth #3: To make the classroom emotionally safe is not only impossible but also undesirable.

The first step toward any education is this: The learner must care. When the learner cares, her upbringing, convictions, and fears will show up. Sparked emotions can hurt feelings, derail discussions, and confuse participants. Thus, teachers are tempted to suppress emotions in class. But given Truth #3, it should not be the teacher’s job to manage or control the emotions in the classroom.

Of course, a good teacher will restrain classroom bullies and urge self-absorbed students to listen. But a teacher who tries to manage emotions can end up neutering discussions. A teacher might sprinkle truisms, like “We must respect opposing viewpoints” or “Everyone has an equal voice.” When used in order to control discomfort, these truisms do harm. They tacitly communicate that “caring about this issue is wrong” or “fighting for a conviction is wrong.” In effect, emotional management does not produce safety but apathy.

Edwin Friedman spent forty years advising generals, pastors, business leaders, and teachers how to lead. In his view, leaders and teachers ought not focus on “techniques for manipulating or motivating others” but on “their own integrity and the nature of their own presence” (Failure of Nerve, p.13). Good teachers, in other words, “manage” by modeling good learning, which leads us to our fourth truth.

Truth #4: Good teachers create good classrooms by modeling good learning.

The book of Proverbs begins with a statement that confuses modern ears: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). What on earth could it mean that wisdom begins when we fear God? It’s tempting to understand the statement to be about intellectual beliefs: “When your theology is right, you will be wise.” A better understanding comes from Jesus: “Have no fear of those who put to death the body, but are not able to put to death the soul. But have fear of him who has power to give soul and body to destruction in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

A good teacher does not ignore fear but fears what should be feared. The Christian educator knows that God is to be feared above principals, parents, coworkers, or her students’ emotions. The Christian teacher finds her solace, not in fearing who could kill the body, but in Who can destroy the soul. Such a teacher models true wisdom. Furthermore, her presence galvanizes students to endure the fear that inevitably arises during the pursuit of wisdom.



  1. In some cases of severe trauma, emotions are simply too painful to restate (for example, a soldier experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Therapists who otherwise encourage clients to explore their own trauma will, in severe cases, step in and name the trauma to the client.

Copyright April 2014 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Tim McIntosh