Everyone has an Opinion. Opinions are Not the Same as Informed Knowledge
One of the biggest challenges to attaining Guideline 1—intellectual humility—is the emphasis placed in mainstream culture on the value of opinion. Mainstream culture has normalized the idea that because everyone has an opinion, all opinions are equally valid. For example, local news and radio shows regularly invite callers to share their opinions about questions ranging from “Do you think so-and-so is guilty?” to “Should immigration be restricted?” Reality shows invite us to vote on the best
singer or dancer, implying that our opinions are equal to the opinions of professional dancers, singers, choreographers, and producers. While we might have an informed opinion, our response certainly does not depend on one. Thus we can easily be fooled into confusing opinion (which everyone has) with informed knowledge (which few have without ongoing practice and study).
Because of this socialization, many of us unwittingly bring the expectation for opinion-sharing into the academic classroom. However, in academia, opinion is the weakest form of intellectual engagement. When our comprehension is low and critical thinking skills underdeveloped, expressing our opinion is the easiest response. All of us hold opinions on a topic before we enter a course (as our astronomy student did), and these opinions don’t require us to understand the issues or engage with the course readings at all. Therefore, expressing our opinions simply rehearses what we already think and doesn’t require us to expand, question, or go beneath our ideas. If we aren’t interested in reading what we have been assigned, or do not understand what we have read, the easiest thing to do is to point to a passage in the text and give a personal opinion about it (e.g., “I loved it when the author said that men dominate because it reminded me of an experience I had….”), or use it to reject the reading out of hand (e.g., “The author said White people have privilege. I totally disagree with that because I know someone who didn’t get a job because he’s White!”).
When we make claims based on anecdotal evidence with regard to the concepts studied—for example claiming, “Now there is reverse racism” — we are in effect expressing an opinion that is not supported by scholarly evidence. We would not use opinion in astronomy class and believe it unlikely that a student arguing that she or he disagrees with Stephen Hawking on a matter of astronomy would have her or his position taken seriously, much less feel free to make such a claim to begin with. Yet in the social justice classroom, scholars such as Peggy McIntosh, Michel Foucault, and Beverly Tatum are regularly disagreed with well before comprehension of their work is mastered. Consider how our astronomy student’s understanding of planets—as well as his understanding of science as an ever-evolving field—could deepen if he was able to engage with current theories about what constitutes a planet. Unfortunately, our hypothetical student’s attachment to his previously held beliefs precludes this possibility.
Because of these tendencies, professors who teach from a critical social justice stance sometimes “shut down” opinion-sharing (Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2014). This curtailing of the sharing of opinions in class is often perceived as breaking a social rule: “I have the right to my opinion and
denying me that right is unfair.” Of course we have a right to our opinions. But our academic goals are not to simply express our preexisting opinions; our goals are to engage with scholarly evidence and develop the theoretical tools with which to gain a more complex understanding of social phenomena. Yet let us be clear: We do want students to offer opinions in order to reflect on and examine them; opening one’s opinions to examination is not the same as simply expressing them.
In order to move beyond the level of previously held opinions, practice the following:
Reflect on your reasons for pursuing higher education. Many students would say they are going to university or college in order to secure a good career. However, your longevity and success in that career will depend on your critical-thinking skills and the depth and breadth of your general knowledge base. How might allowing your worldview to be stretched and challenged actually serve your future career interests? Recognize that you do not have to agree with concepts under study in order to learn from them. Let go of the idea that you must agree with a concept you are studying in order for it to be valid or worth learning. Practice posing open-ended questions rather than closed questions that invite yes/no responses or debate. Closed questions often begin with “Should” or “Do you agree” (e.g., “Should schools ban soda machines?” or “Do you agree that opportunity is not equal?”). The limitation of these questions is that the debate format does not leave much room for examining grey areas or grappling with complexities. Closed questions can also be answered with an easy yes or no, which prevents a nuanced engagement with complex issues. Practice developing quality questions. For example, using John Taylor Gatto’s “Seven Lesson Schoolteacher” (2002), strong questions could include: “Consider Gatto’s argument that all teachers teach the seven lessons. On a continuum from ‘Yes absolutely’ on one end, to ‘No absolutely not’ on the other, position yourself in relation to his argument. Explain why you have positioned yourself there.” Use phrases such as, “Under what conditions …” and “To what extent …” when you ask questions. For example, “Under what conditions might we avoid teaching Gatto’s lessons?” “To what extent does the school curriculum influence teacher autonomy?” Use the course readings to support your position. Questions connected to texts should require familiarity with
the text to answer. For example, “Identify two of Gatto’s seven lessons and find examples you have seen in schools.” If someone can respond to the question without ever having read the text, it is not a strong question. Questions may also ask people to re-imagine. For example, “Using the readings, design the ideal classroom. Describe the guidelines for student engagement in this ideal classroom. How would the curriculum and pedagogical activities be organized? How would you assess your goals?”