Monday, July 27, 2015

Informed Opinions

By the time I went to college, The Big Lebowski, which had come out just a few years before, was just starting to attain its cult status.  Some were drawn to the bowling, the drugs, the jokes about contemporary art, the various satirical social commentaries.  I often found myself replaying lines in my head during classes, and no line did I repeat to myself more often than "Yeah, well, you know, that's just like your opinion, man".  I went to a small liberal arts college where opinions and so-called "world views" were often challenged, and sometimes it seemed that students debated non-stop, in the dorm rooms, at meals, and even at the gym. If you wanted to have a varied and interesting group of friends, or just not be known as an ignoramus/asshole, you had to be prepared to let some opinions go.
Last week, Jef Rouner had an essay published by Houston Press that I think should be required reading for all college students (and everyone else):
Increasingly, it seems that students do not pursue higher education to learn and expand their understanding of issues, but to reinforce their preconceived world views, or with none of this even in mind, as they seek out a professional degree.  They do not have a solid understanding of rhetoric, and don't necessarily understand the difference between an argument based on facts and an argument based on opinions.  Some students, instructors, and administrators worry less about this, and more about making sure appropriate "trigger warnings" are in place as well as various "safe" places for students.  While I understand the value of these for some situations, my fear is that sometimes this caters to the reinforcement of opinions over facts, and silence over debates and discussion that could help people achieve a better understanding and compassion for the issues that create triggers and create the need for safe spaces. 
The most important thing I learned in college was that sometimes my opinions were at the very least uninformed, and other times, they were just plain wrong.  I left with the pride of understanding that in order to stay well-informed, and keep learning, I would need to continue to interrogate my beliefs, question my dearly held opinions, and most importantly, avoid what I think is an all too common response of indignation and anger when someone attempted to educate me beyond my preconceived notion of something.  This is a hard lesson to learn, and I'm still learning it, but now it's a rare and strange week when at least one of my opinions doesn't change in some way, and I think that the willingness to change ones opinion, including sometimes acknowledging that it's in fact completely wrong is crucial both from an educational and professional standpoint.
Meanwhile, indignation and anger continue to be an all to common response when people's so called opinions and beliefs are challenged.  In part, I think we have a detrimental culture that associates changing of opinion with weakness. For instance, consider what the media says when a political challenge changes their mind about something: we call it "flop-flopping".  Do we want our leaders to change their mind every couple weeks on key issues and beliefs? Of course not. But I also don't think it's productive to attack leaders when they acknowledge that over the course of many years, they've changed their mind about an issue. Without the ability to acknowledge that new facts or experiences have taught us that we need to let an opinion go in favor of fact, there can be no compromise and no progress.
What opinions drive what you do?  When was the last time you allowed someone to change your mind, based on facts you had not seen or sought out?  I think these are good questions to ask ourselves periodically, and also fine questions for teachers, at any level of education, to ask their students.

No comments: