Diary of a Student Teacher: Why Do We Care So Much About Having Opinions?

Teaching is like being a human Occam's razor. "Why do you think that?" we ask. "How did you get there?" We don't necessarily have answers to all of the questions we're exploring, but -- at least some of the time -- we gently insist that students not just make things up willy-nilly, or choose answers because they prefer one over the other.

This role fits me pretty well, I think, perhaps because I don't actually have very many beliefs and views of my own (or least not that many that I hold tightly). When I realized this recently, it came as a bit of a shock; for the longest time, I had understood my identity largely through my philosophical positions, political loyalties, and aesthetic preferences. Through meditation practice over the last few years, though, I've begun to see how many of those views weren't products of my identity -- they were efforts to create an identity, to find something solid to hold onto amidst life's flux and confusion. And the more clearly I see this -- the more vivid my own grasping becomes - the less interested I am in perpetuating it.

Lately, this shift has begun to affect the way I see curriculum as well. In particular, I'm noticing more of the ways that we constantly ask kids to have an opinion, to develop and defend a view -- even if they know next to nothing about the issue at hand. Of course, this isn't restricted to primary school. (In some ways, it was the backbone of my entire education, all the way through grad school.) It's as if we as a culture believe that the mere having of an opinion is worthwhile in and of itself.

In a democracy, this kind of inclination shouldn't be a surprise. Politics at home and abroad shows us every day just how fragile rights to individual conscience can be, and we're wise to be concerned about protecting them.

The problem, however, is when we conflate the value of the right to have an opinion with the value of merely having one. (This parallels our culture's frequent conflation of legalistic and moral thinking: you may have the right to do something, but that isn't a reason to do it.) In other words, I'm not sure that opinions, in and of themselves, are worth much. In fact, I think there's more to it: I worry that the deliberate formation of views can often be an exercise in self-blinding.

An example: I recently watched a brilliant middle school teacher lead a lesson on Elie Wiesel's Night. The teacher guided his students through incredibly complicated and painful terrain, sharing insights and midwifing his kids' intuitions with compassion and care. Toward the end of the lesson, however, he introduced a writing assignment that left me puzzled. He described how some of the Jewish inmates in Auschwitz had debated whether to fast for Yom Kippur, and he asked the students to consider the question and respond in the form of a short persuasive essay.

On one hand, I thought, this could be a great way of encouraging the students to try to imagine themselves into the situation, to let themselves feel (as much as possible) the wildly complicated and conflicting impulses that many of those inmates must've felt, and perhaps to discern what some of their own instincts might have been. In a conversation with the teacher afterward, I found myself agreeing with him about the value of attempting to articulate those instincts, and of the learning that can take place when we exchange them with others.

On the other hand, I worried about the effect of encouraging the students to come to some kind of conclusion. I imagined that many of them -- perhaps those with a penchant for debate, or perhaps those in a hurry to get the assignment done -- would skip over the parts of the exercise that require imagination and empathy and head right for rhetoric, for argument. (After all, isn't that what a persuasive essay is supposed to be?)

More fundamentally, I wondered about the value of producing opinions on a question like this; in a sense, they feel beside the point. And at worst, I suspect they get in the way of what might be the more important task -- to simply see what took place, what people went through. To sit in silence and let ourselves feel.

This essay originally appeared at The Wheat and Chaff.