A Timely Lesson on Not Placing Passion over Reason
College was quite a learning experience for me. That ought to be a tautology, but I'm concerned that in an important sense it may not be. In my case, I had many excellent professors, who taught me not only the material at hand, but also how to think and learn and live. Yet one of my most memorable lessons came not from a professor, but from a TA (teaching assistant), who taught me very pointedly how not to substitute outrage for critical engagement.
As a general rule, undergraduate students preferred dealing with the professors rather than with their TAs. I preferred especially not to have my assignments graded by TAs, for they were usually graduate students in the field, who knew much more than the undergraduates and much less than the professors. It seemed to me that they were advanced enough to know how bad the undergraduates' work was, but not how little to expect from undergraduates. It was better to deal with professors, who knew that you knew nothing but expected you to know nothing.
The particular TA of memory had the task not only of grading our responses to assigned readings, but also of delivering the lecture one class period—a rare treat among TAs' behind-the-scenes labors, and a valuable exercise in their development as scholars. This was an opportunity not to be wasted, and it was not.
I remember more of that lecture than of almost any other I heard in college. The TA spoke about a social issue and shared his own experiences in the matter. At one point, he mentioned an unsavory comment someone had made to him in the past and then waxed vehement about it, exclaiming something to the effect of "What's with that?!" and throwing his water bottle across the room in a display of outrage.
Naturally, I was impressed. Such passion! It was the sort of thing that twenty-somethings find deeply inspiring.
The Moment of Enlightenment
I proceeded to bring his enthusiasm to bear on my coursework. In my written response to our next assigned reading, I let my own righteous indignation flow. I do not recall either the topic of the reading or any specific points in my response—just that the general tenor of it was an outraged "What's with that?!"
All of this is prelude to the moment of enlightenment, which came when I received my essay back, inscribed with the evaluation—by the TA, of course. He wrote something like this: "You need to find a more mature way to express your critique."
It was a profound moment for me, because he was right, and I knew it. His critical pen burst my self-righteous bubble, and I saw my response for what it was: juvenile. There was a prominent caveat in my mind, of course; namely, that I had learned this manner of critique from his own example. But that did not affect the correctness of his evaluation. He was still right.
I think there was also a good lesson for him to learn that day about the impact of certain pedagogical methods, but I'll probably never know if he learned it or if he even realized that I had been aping him in my outrage. But that's neither here nor there. The point is that I learned the lesson from him, and I recite it here and now: Outrage is no substitute for critical thinking. Even bad ideas are better examined carefully and dissected critically than shouted down angrily. This is an invaluable lesson for the school of life, to take a discerning approach when dealing with a world of ideas.
Unvalued & Untaught
Yet this is not, apparently, a lesson valued by contemporary society. It is not a lesson that contemporary education is instilling in students. Moving from my personal anecdote to the broader environs of the American public square brings into view a disturbing feature of our society: our public discourse places a premium on outrage. Even more significantly for the future, our educational system places a premium on outrage.
For this is what the rise of high-exposure teenage activism reveals—not that kids easily get caught up in the excitement of promoting a cause, which is only natural, but that adults fan the flames of their passion rather than gently redirecting their energy to the urgent task of learning to think critically and calmly.
In a society with a healthy public discourse, teenage activists would not be featured on major media, for several reasons. First, we would be concerned to protect young people from the effects of media exposure on their development. Second, we would have the decency not to embarrass young people by broadcasting them spouting their juvenile opinions. And third, we would have a public discourse grounded in reasoned critical engagement, where youthful outrage would have no place.
Such is not, obviously, the state of public discourse in America today. On the contrary, the young activists have learned their mode of engagement from their elders. Juvenile outrage fits within our public discourse because it echoes so much of the adult contribution. From politicians to pop stars, sloganeering substitutes for substance and being offended is the order of the day. The leaders have modeled placing passion above reason, and the youth follow.
Still a Necessary Lesson
In this way our cultural elites and media differ radically from my old TA. I do not know whether he saw in my work a reflection of himself; what matters is that he saw something that needed to be corrected, not applauded, and he gave that needed correction with appropriate directness. That is something our universities, media, and leaders seem either unable or unwilling to do. Perhaps they never learned this lesson themselves, or perhaps they simply know how to play the game, and victory and popularity are more important to them than truth.
The fact remains, this is a critical lesson that we all need to learn: outrage is not the same thing as critical thinking, and being passionate is not the same as being right, or even reasonable. As I look at American culture, I think we are failing to teach that lesson to many of those passing through our educational system; quite possibly we are teaching them the opposite. This sort of failure usually has consequences.
But that's a lesson for another day.Joshua Steely
is Senior Pastor of Chatham Baptist Church. He lives in the Midwest with his wonderful wife and children.This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #53, Summer 2020 Copyright © 2021 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo53/outrage-or-insight