If you’ve been following Your Everyday Heroes lately, you’ll know that we are huge advocates for teachers. After our recent spotlight of Svetlana Winward, we knew we had to continue to showcase those who are not only heroes themselves, but work to make heroes. Enter Dan O’Rourke, a Chicago-born English teacher and educational consultant. Dan believes in language’s power to influence our beliefs. This is why he stresses the value of argument, something we’ll delve into deeply.
In this story, you’ll hear Dan speak extensively on rhetoric. For reference, rhetoric is the study of the technique and rules for using language effectively to please or persuade.
Dan’s Tragic Upbringing
Like most of us, Dan didn’t have what you’d call an idyllic childhood. The youngest of seven children, he was born in northern Michigan to hard-working parents. His father was a judge on the circuit court, a prestigious position; all seemed like it was going in the right direction for Dan’s family until tragedy struck.
When Dan was four, his father and mother suffered a horrific car accident at the hands of a drunk driver. His father was unfortunately killed, and his mother was left permanently disabled. Without the support of his father’s job, his family quickly slipped into poverty.
“Many people would say I grew up in an unhappy home,” Dan tells us. “And it was unhappy in that I had to watch my mother suffer… We really didn’t have money. I didn’t realize how poor we were because I was just a kid.”
In order to cope with the pain of his familial situation, Dan escaped into the world of books. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit in particular had a huge impact on him and his perception of heroism.
As Dan alludes to, we can easily make a connection between the book’s protagonist Bilbo Baggins and any of the heroes featured on YEDH. Like them, Bilbo does not conform to our culture’s grandiose expectations of what a hero should be. In fact, you could say that he is the original everyday hero.
Dan’s Academic Journey
It wasn’t until high school when Dan became truly aware of the hardships his family faced. And he wanted out. He viewed academic excellence as his ticket to a better living situation.
“In high school, you get this grand sight of justice,” Dan says. “I wanted out of this whole miserable situation, where things were so unjust and unfair. I thought my ticket out was college. I did whatever I could to work towards that goal, which included postponing immediate gratification”
This discipline paid off, as Dan was admitted to Villanova College, a private Catholic college that was included among the top National Universities in U.S. News & World Report’s 2021 “Best Colleges” rankings. He initially majored in liberal arts and minored in philosophy.
“My favorite course was taught by Father Hagan, and it was English. I liked Father Hagan so much that I took him the next semester and the next semester. The next thing you know, by the time I’m graduating, I’m an English major… [English] helped me realize these deeper human truths about recognizing beauty, overcoming adversity, and being attentive to the positives.”
The Power of Words
There are many components to the study of English, and Dan’s first favorite was literature. Literature, he says, is all-encompassing, including the story of the hero’s journey, as well as beautiful language.
However, he soon became more infatuated with the argumentative/rhetorical aspects of English. According to Dan, argument is vital towards influencing people. It can be used for good or bad. A hero doesn’t stray from argument, as some may think. Instead, a hero uses argument to sway others’ mindsets in a positive direction.
“We need to understand argument as a way to learn. Many of us misunderstand argument as something that needs to be won. We don’t argue to win. We argue to learn. I don’t know everything, so I want to open up my knowledge with a proposition, and I want to rub it up against someone else’s proposition that they have learned through their experience,” he explains.
Meanwhile, there’s also rhetoric, which is a counterpart to argument. “The purpose of argument is to arrive at the truth. The purpose of rhetoric is to persuade. Hopefully those can be in alignment,” he says.
While argument deals more with rational propositions that lead to a conclusion, rhetoric uses emotional reasoning in its convincing. (Think logos versus pathos.) According to Dan, we need to be cautious when using rhetoric.
“Oftentimes, emotional reasoning can lead us away from the truth. We can become blind to the other side due to our human emotions,” he explains.
How Our Words Relate to Heroism
So we’ve learned about the value of both argument and rhetoric. But how does this relate to heroism? Well, according to Dan, “We should always be heroic enough to try to hone our beliefs and learn more.” What he means is, we must be open to argument. Considering the viewpoints of others is a heroic act, and even if we disagree with the party we are arguing with, understanding why they hold their beliefs makes us more enlightened people.
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With this being said, Dan emphasizes the importance of not losing our convictions. Rather, we should always be questioning our convictions, reminding ourselves of why we hold them.
Dan Answers the Important Questions
Dan clearly has lots of wisdom to impart, so we wanted to ask him some questions related to heroism. His answers are transcribed below.
YEDH: What does it mean to be a hero?
Dan: What it means to me to be a hero is to be able to set goals and have the courage to strive to achieve those goals. In striving to achieve those goals, a hero is going to have to be responsible and delay gratification… So to be able to sacrifice and be able to stay dedicated to maintaining that goal is something that I think is particularly heroic. Again, we have to jump off from our familiar environment and move into the unknown in order to achieve that goal.
YEDH: Who is your hero?
Dan: I’ve had so many heroes in my life, my mom was certainly a hero of mine. She, who was disabled from a car accident when I was just four years old, strived to overcome severe brain damage… She never gave up. It was learning to walk again, learning to talk again. It was just inspiring for me to witness.
YEDH: What message do you have for your audience?
Dan: All of us have the capability to be everyday heroes, to inspire others, and to relieve others from their suffering. So we need to strive for those goals, develop our gifts to the best of our ability so that we can live to our fullest potential.
Growing up, I had this naive understanding that others didn’t suffer. You know, “Those guys out in the suburbs, they have everything. They don’t suffer like we do.” It’s such a naive understanding. I grew to learn, through both my study of literature and my first-hand experiences, that everybody suffers so dearly, and everybody’s looking for encouragement and inspiration. And the amount people suffer is heart-wrenching.
As a teacher, Dan O’Rourke makes his living influencing future generations of heroes. Through his vast knowledge of the English language, he teaches his students to communicate effectively, to hear the perspectives of others.
It took Dan a long time to get to where he is. Growing up impoverished, it was easy for him to think that others didn’t suffer in the way his family did. However, he now realizes the suffering of others. And while he can never completely fix it, through teaching he makes the world incrementally better each day.