Posted by: Kenn Hermann | February 29, 2008

Judgments vs. Opinions in the Classroom

It happened again today in class. Early in every semester I have a student who offers their comments on the topic at hand with “well, that’s just my opinion.” I am sure that every professor has heard this same expression countless times. Typically, students say this as a way to fend off criticism on the grounds that “everyone is entitled to their opinion.” I also hear this expression in response to a grade I have given on an exam or essay. Students will often say, “well, that’s your opinion,” meaning, of course, that “we all have different ways of looking at things. You have yours; but mine is just as valid because it’s mine.” Let’s have a little fun by exploring the insidious implications of this substitute for clear thought.

We retain a glimmer of the old meaning of opinion as judgment when courts deliver their ‘opinions.’ Unfortunately, the meaning of ‘opinion’ has degenerated to the level of visceral or gut reaction, an emotional response, how someone ‘feels’ about something. As we have all learned in our therapeutic society, “all feelings are valid.” (But even that is a claim that should be debated.) No one has the right to challenge another person’s feelings, so we are told, especially since they are ‘sincerely’ held. But when we share feelings, we are merely reporting to others about what is going on internally; we are not engaging in any meaningful exchange of ideas. In such a situation discussing contested perspectives based on a close reading of the text becomes a therapy session in which everyone is encouraged to share their ‘feelings’ about the text, but no one learns what the author intended in the text.

Students fail to see that all rational discussion about any subject in such a situation screeches to a halt. Why? Rational discussion requires that people share ideas whose truth, validity, consequences, or implications can be disputed, refuted, or supported. Discussion, as opposed to therapy sessions, requires that all of the participants make claims and counter-claims about an objective reality; it cannot exist where statements are simply mirrors of inner feelings.

Perhaps a story will illustrate this point. Years ago, I had a student who was deeply involved in the work of Amnesty International. Over coffee one day he told me how strongly he felt about the evils of being imprisoned for one’s political beliefs and asked how I felt about it. I said I had no feelings one way or the other. I than asked him why I should be as incensed about political prisoners as he was. He could only repeat and ratchet up his strong feelings about it and urge me to share those feelings. I made it clear to him that the strength of his feelings about political prisoners could not be the basis of my beliefs about political prisoners. The only way that I could be persuaded to care about their plight was by his appeal to a standard of justice that existed independently of his feelings, one that I also accepted. Once we got to that point we had a meaningful discussion of the appropriate standards of justice that ought to be invoked in dealing with human rights abuses. Hopefully, he walked away from our discussion with a clearer understanding of the difference between ‘feeling’ that being jailed for one’s political beliefs is unjust and ‘claiming’ that being jailed violates a central norm of human dignity.

Students — and the society that has taught them — also need to understand that when they claim that “everyone is entitled to their opinion” that they are making a claim that must be supported by some standard of equity or justice. On what grounds, for what reasons, are all opinions entitled to be held? Surely people who utter this phrase are not simply reporting their inner feelings. If that were the case, we could respond with: “hmmm, it’s interesting that you feel that way. I don’t.” End of discussion.

We only have to turn to the hostilities of talk radio and bullying tv shows to see the logical consequences of substituting feelings for thoughts. The ‘force’ of an argument has been replaced by the ‘force’ of insult, put-down, sarcasm, and violence. Reasoned argument ceases. This post does not have the space to follow up the myriad of ways in which abandoning sound argument and rational discussion has worked its way into our society.

I frequently ask my students what they would think of a prosecutor who scowled at the defendant in front of her and said, “you know, you disgust me. I feel that you should be locked up for life without possibility of parole.” Fortunately, they still ‘feel’ that this would be unjust, but are not sure why. I explain that it is because we are not interested in the prosecutor’s ‘feelings.’ We are interested in the evidence she can marshal to persuade the jury that the defendant is guilty.

All of this to say that I tell my students that I am interested in their judgments, not their feelings or opinions, about their readings, judgments that can be supported by appeal to clear evidence, examples, and illustrations. When I give them a ‘C’ for their essay, I tell them that their grade is my judgment, not my opinion; it is based on carefully described criteria.

Classrooms are places for discussing judgments, not sharing feelings.

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