There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as “moral indignation,” which permits envy or hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue.
— Erich Fromm, from Man for Himself
I recently sent a brusque email reply to a colleague. Yes, of course that was a dumb thing to do. But then again, she had it coming, right? How dare she!
Indignation is a powerful emotion. It brings out our inner knuckle-dragging primate, primed for a fight.
At school we learn math, reading, and all that “academic” stuff. But just as importantly, school is where we learn not to drag our knuckles in public. Through experience, we discover it is absurd to let fouls throw us off our game. We learn the merits of politeness. We conclude that when some moron cuts in line, it is usually best to grit our teeth, breathe, and let it go. Rudeness and rejection and criticism and morons are all part of this bittersweet life, right?
At its best, middle school is when we learn how to keep our cool because, well, the alternatives don’t tend to work out so well.
The rough laboratory of middle school also introduces some lessons of mixed value, however. When you go ape in defense of your own dignity, you risk looking thin-skinned. But indignation on someone else’s behalf? That can be a little different. One lesson you might take from middle school is the social value of sticking up for someone else. Hey, you might just be seen as the leader of the tribe. Or at least you might feel like it for a while.
Indignation can flourish like a bad case of acne when we allow it to attach to a matter of general principle or something that can be seen as sacred. Then it seems all grown up. If you gild your rage with principle, you can wear it proudly as “moral indignation.” It kind of makes you wonder about the effects of such principled anger and indignation in debates about the future of schools, doesn’t it?
Social media and talk radio have elevated the cheap shot to an art form, and education partisans are learning the art."
Moral indignation is a deeply dangerous idea. At its worst, it provides cover for horrific impulses rooted in hatred, rage, and jealousy. Righteous rage provides the emotional power behind fatwas, lynch mobs, riots, and genocides.
More mundanely, righteous indignation stokes the fires of partisan audiences. Tune in to Fox News or “The Daily Show” to see it at work. Politicians and pundits cultivate indignation because it is powerful and quick. It can motivate people to urgent action. It can also help define a group (“Who’s with me?”). As social animals, we feel drawn to defend our tribe, whatever that might mean.
Indignation is not a positive emotion, but in a sense it feels good. You can’t feel outraged and sleepy at the same time, which partly explains why so many drivers tune in to conflict-driven talk radio. Rush Limbaugh caffeinates his listeners with things to feel righteously upset about. Indignation is cheaper than coffee, and quicker, too! Because rudeness is so common in politics, leaders who keep their cool under pressure are impressive. Americans tune in to presidential debates, in part, to watch how candidates react as they assault one another verbally.
Composure—keeping cool—might appear to be the opposite of indignation, but it’s an unsatisfactory antonym. A politician’s poker face can mask indignation without dissolving it. A more interesting set of true opposites exists: dispassion on the one hand; humility on the other.
The leader who taught the world most about both the power and the dangers of indignation wore a loincloth and a simple white shawl. In one of history’s great surprises, India won independence from Great Britain with relatively little bloodshed. Mohandas Gandhi persuaded millions that India could, should, and would be independent. But the world remembers him most for the nonviolent manner in which he urged his nation to accomplish it. He showed the world by example that it is possible to disagree and prevail without casting one’s opponents as demons.
Change is coming to education. Yesterday, the first smartphones and tablet computers made our collective jaws drop. This morning, we were unsure what to do when they showed up in schools. We have some ideas about what we might do with them tomorrow, but it is still unclear how they will change the way students and parents and teachers work with one another next week. If history is any guide, the changes will be big, and they will come upon us before we are ready.
Ten years ago, we could feel certain that the public was deeply and broadly committed to strong funding for public schools, and we all pretty much shared an idea of what that looked like: a school organized into grades, classrooms of a consistent size, teachers at the front of every room. Desks. Paper. Books. A bell schedule. A single salary schedule. A decade into the future, wouldn’t it be shocking if the public remained deeply and uniformly committed to schools like that?
A positive, shared vision for change could inspire renewed enthusiasm for investment in public schools. In this fast-changing context, however, there will be many points of view and many opportunities for indignant disagreement. Social media and talk radio have elevated the cheap shot to an art form, and education partisans are learning the art. On present course and speed, prolonged bickering that undermines public confidence seems more likely than a shared vision that inspires investment.
Our children deserve better. Education leaders should consider whether their opponents are really opponents, or whether they just tend to see the future from a different perspective. Maybe it’s time to ask: How would Gandhi have used Twitter?
A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2013 edition of Education Week as Let’s Remove Self-Righteousness From the K-12 Debate