College students seem to love any argument made “passionately”–and, likewise, to scorn any argument constructed of objective reasons. Of course, this doesn’t bode at all well for our ailing republic.
I realize that readers of this site enjoy an array of readings much more specific and topical than mine this week; and those few who choose to stick with me below will probably even have to return to Part One of this meander, posted last Sunday, to refresh their memories. Frankly, though, I find that I cannot withstand many more stories about presidential lying, congressional betraying, and media pandering–not right now. I’m overloaded. As my son joins the ranks of eighteen-year-olds on this blessed day, therefore, I prefer a more wide-angle shot of our troubled culture. Anyone who savors this sort of thing as I do may wish to peek next month at the forthcoming edition of Praesidium at www.literatefreedom.org (sure to be up and ready by March 31), where I intend to publish both parts of my essay.
CONTINUED FROM LAST WEEK…
Inasmuch as the essay above addresses the possibility (or, I should say, the improbability) of fortifying ordinary American citizens against the rhetoric of manipulative “change agents”, an experiment with our youngest voters suggested itself to me just after I finished the piece. I assigned the essay (being very careful to dissociate myself from it) to a class of college freshman in January of this year, at the very beginning of the Spring semester. Students read (or were supposed to have read) the essay as homework before their third class meeting, whereupon they were asked to write a brief response to it. I might observe immediately, by way of warning, that all responses were handwritten. The absence of an automated word-processing program trailing the student’s fingers and mopping up his or her sloppy orthography is painfully evident. Is this an incidental comment, I wonder—or does it not rather drive right to the heart of the matter: the inability of many young people even among the educated to see any kind of thoughtful endeavor through without the aid of time-and-labor saving devices?
For besides almost universal complaining about the vocabulary’s difficulty, the most common criticism of the piece appeared to be that it didn’t quickly fit itself into some well-worn template—or that it seemed to do so at first, but then “deceptively” doubled back on itself. These young readers, for the most part, did not much appreciate the descent into one genre by way of exemplification, and then the clinical autopsy of that genre. The 180-degree turn disoriented them, and the disorientation irritated them. They wanted the game finished according to the same rules that presided over its start. The level of abstraction that was instead demanded of them by the rhetorical masquerade struck them as cynical—or, in the word of one, “sarcastic”.
On the other hand, how many students (I found myself asking from time to time) in fact understood that the courtroom defense was a mere figure and not the author’s expression of his own views? The following assessment of one good-natured young man certainly doesn’t seem to see a distinction:
“The author’s criticisms are exagerated [sic] a little but he agrees with them. I think he is over doing [sic] his point to infasize [sic] it better. He had the point where school is a prison, but I think he meant at a certain age students should be allowed to decide if they will attend or if they will join the work force.”
The “school is prison” equation, of course, belonged to the courtroom, not the autopsist’s lab, and thus cannot be ranged among the “author’s criticisms” except by mistake. The student cited below obviously made the same error (or else simply never read the second half of the essay: that possibility must not be discounted).
“The author had the ability to turn every accusation around into something positive. In a way his statements were true but at the same time highly exaggerated. I think he is exaggerating to show the so-called ‘jury’ that his client should not be convicted but applauded for correcting society.”
The next comment I offer is not so gullible. This young woman “gets it”… but not fully. Indeed, she names as her “favorite part” the advancing of a strategy that the author not only didn’t promote, but roundly condemned:
“At first, I actually thought that the first part was real. I had no idea he was pretending to give that speech. Then, all of a sudden he starts analysing [sic] it and breaking it apart. I think he did a good job of representing the other side. My favorite part of this piece was when he shows how to respond to accusations from his opponent. He says that if they accuse you of doing something blame them for doing something with out [sic] giving detail, that way you dont [sic] have to prove it because its [sic] vague.”
As you can imagine, this sort of response depressed me more deeply, in a way, than the one that detects no seam in the value systems identified by the essay; for this girl, having located the seam, proceeded to admire the fabric on the wrong side!
Then we have the kinds of misreading that show more initiative—that distort the essay into the sort of adversary, apparently, at which the student-writer most likes to tilt. This sample accuses my argument of gross misanthropy:
“In my opinion the author stretches the truth to prove his point. He make [sic] it seem that all people were bad people. When in truth, they are not. Their writting [sic] mainly talks about how everyone has poor morals and only care about themselves [sic]. He not once gave an example in which a person performs a good deed to help others.”
I assume that the rebuke here is at least leveled at the essay’s second half rather than at the courtroom burlesque: for the “defense summation” oozes with pie-in-the-sky optimism. It is the second half alone which warns of the natural limits imposed upon human nature. Still, what could the specific passage have been that drew such indignant fire? Was it my claim that hard work won’t always get you to the top (a concession to the imaginary progressive advocate, by the way)? Was it my mention of all the rules and regulations that throttle small businesses? Or should I simply never have claimed that the American electorate is a jury that will always vote itself to ruin these days if manipulated with the right rhetoric? What relevance does a person’s doing a good deed have to that sad fact of our political life? Are we bound to believe that our system will promote goodness just because good individuals exist among us?
This manner of indignation became a recurrent theme. The following respondent, for instance, virtually accuses the paper of enslaving him as a dictator would a helpless populace and leading him to places where he would rather not go:
“The writer… establishes a dictatorship with the people, leading the reader throughout the paper to think, see, and feel the same way he does. The extra energy displayed by the intensity of the writer could easily be seen as over the top and unorthodox. It shows how much passion he has for the subject, but leads the reader to believe that he is fanatical. The mock trial is a clever way of introducing everything in detail to the reader in order for him or her to come to a conclusion, but the writer’s exagerration [sic] of the magnitude of injustice imposed by those he is actually accusing is not supporting the argument like it should.”
It may be that we have here another response focused exclusively on the courtroom tirade: I really don’t know. If so, then the student has again failed utterly to notice that the essay’s true intent is to reject the “fanaticism” of the defense’s summation. Yet this particular student must have detected that the essay breaks into two distinct pieces, for he refers to the “mock trial”.
I think the next sample, however (the last I shall adduce), has the piece as a whole in its angry crosshairs:
“Throughout the whole passage, I had a feeling that the author did not feel strongly about the topic. There was a sarcastic tone throughout the entire piece. It felt as if he was literally writing just to write. I can honestly say that I was annoyed with the author. It was as if he was just some guy off the street; not a credible source. Albeit, some of the things he said were true. He mentioned that the wealthy steal from the poor, and that happens all the time. The way he went about explaining it, however, was not very feasible [sic]. He was so sarcastic that it almost made me believe he was part of the wealthy that steals [sic] from the poor.”
This young woman was practically unique in not ascribing the author’s “passion” to a wholesome motive, I might remark. Many responses not cited here were partially won over by the energy of the essay—though I must presume that the courtroom defense generated most or all of this energy in the students’ minds. Hence, once again, they would be evaluating the author on the basis of an example that he creates merely to castigate. The proximity of “passion” to a point of view appears to earn it special points among the young, even when its logical connection to that view is antithetical. Passion trumps reason these days as rocks break scissors.
The response I have just quoted, for that matter, is probably denouncing my essay’s failure to sustain its passion—my “betrayal”, as one might say, of the courtroom’s fervor in casting the summation upon the dissection table. This student is very clear about directing her scorn at the “entire piece”. I’m guessing that the element of sarcasm noted repeatedly, then, is the essay’s very withdrawal from the courtroom tirade to a more analytical level. I believe this young woman finds my piece repugnantly aloof precisely because it does not immerse itself in the opening scene’s passion, but rather warns against and even derides the exploitative strategies of that passionate outburst. I am “writing just to write” like a “guy off the street” (and where we may find such streets in twenty-first century America, I have no idea). I am apparently coming across to her tender young mind as a bloodless, condescending kinglet—the “dictator” of another student, or the wealthy thief she mentions who shares the plunder taken by those he condemns—because I shift rhetorical gears: because I seize upon that fire-breathing lawyer and expose his passion as tawdry calculation. Do I not believe, than, that anybody ever does a good deed (in yet another student’s formulation)? Do I not realize that passion is the true and ultimate measure of moral value? Do I not understand that my icy analysis chills to the bone and ends my own trial before it has begun?
All I can add, then, by way of postscript to my essay in the light of about forty college-freshman reactions is this: Q.E.D. We’re in big trouble as a nation for at least another generation. The sooner a salutary degree of hardship reintroduces our children to common sense and immunizes them to theatrical displays that amuse rather than analyze, the better.