Beyond Our Classrooms

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All teachers hope that their students will make use of the knowledge and skills taught in their courses–in spite of the students’ protestations that “I’ll never use this after the class ends!” One example from a writing course:  ”I’ll have a secretary to catch grammar and punctuation errors for me.” I must admit that I don’t see either of my sons ever using the advanced math they were learning by the end of high school. But as teachers of writing, we can rest assured that more of our students will make use of the skills we teach than will ever make use of imaginary numbers. As teachers of critical thinking, our hope is that all of them will take that skill out into the world and put it to use as workers, voters, parents, community members, and just as people alive in the world.

I focus in this space on how our students can learn to look at today’s headlines and the stories behind them as critical thinkers. I may not use that term regularly, but whenever we ask students to look as dispassionately as possible at the stories behind the headlines, we are not asking them not to be passionate. Not at all. We would be less than human if we could read about the evil and injustice that exist in our world without passion. We have seen too often recently, though, the consequences of letting passion rule over reason.

Michael N. Di Gregorio explains how Aristotle identified anger as “the distressed desire for conspicuous retaliation; passion necessitates a reaction. Unfortunately, it is not a clear-headed, rational reaction but one taken under ‘mental and physical distress,’ and we are presumably prone to overreact or react mistakenly.” Aristotle identifies “a kind of ‘pleasure’ that ‘follows all experience of anger from the hope of getting retaliation..’We tend to dwell on this hope for retaliation until its pleasure swells in the mind so as to become dreamlike: We do not necessarily want to retaliate because it is deserved, or justifiable, but because we take pleasure in imagining ourselves carrying out the retaliation.” We have seen passion overcome reason in Ferguson, and more recently in Baltimore. Looters in Baltimore went beyond protest to seek the pleasure of material gain.

We want our students not to replace passion with reason, but to see the rational behind the passion. We would hope that the jury members deciding not to press charges in the Ferguson case were looking at the facts. We would hope those making the opposite decision to press charges in Baltimore were as well. If nothing else, we want our students to learn to look at more than one side of an argument, to understand what different parties in a disagreement are supporting, what support they are offering, and what sort of values underlie their reasoning. We want them to have a vocabulary to use in discussing disagreements. In our world they need that. We all get into arguments. Part of being educated is being able to back away from the argument and analyze it. Headlines from around the world daily give our students and us opportunities to practice this skill.

[Photo Source: Christopher Sessums, "UF Norman Hall Classroom Desks Old Norman Orange and Blue"]

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.