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‘I’m Not Paying for Your Opinion’

Perhaps, to explain Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s now infamous findings in Academically Adrift, we need look no further than the current customer-service culture. That thought came to me after a recent incident in my introductory rhetoric course.

We were talking about the way that social mores and public opinions change over time, and how writing both influences and reflects those changes. When I broached one particularly controversial topic, a student interjected, “But that’s just your opinion, and I’m not paying for your opinion.”

OK, then.

In fact, I had not been expressing a personal opinion; rather, I was exploring a variety of other people’s opinions and inviting students to evaluate them critically. But that’s really beside the point. The more I think about the episode, the more I realize just how wrongheaded that student’s comment was on so many levels.

For one thing, there’s nothing that says students have a right to be shielded from opinions they don’t like, or even a right not to be offended. Generally, I’m pretty careful what I say; I’m not a proponent of the “shock jock” school of pedagogy, intentionally setting out to provoke or offend students–although I know people do who teach that way, including some of my former professors.

However, it’s virtually impossible to talk about important issues like race, gender, religion, sexuality, evolution, abortion, or justice (just to name a few) without saying something–or assigning some reading, or making some allusion–that someone might perceive as offensive. (Try asking a bunch of future nurses to read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”) Yet it’s a vital part of their education for students to read and think and talk about such issues, examining their own beliefs and assumptions in light of what great thinkers past and present have had to say. That’s a major part of what we mean when we use the term “critical thinking.”

Students also need to learn that being offended is an emotional response, not a rational one. If you don’t like something I’ve said–or, as in this case, something somebody else said–don’t just get upset about it. See if you can formulate a cogent rebuttal. That, too, is a key element of critical thinking.

Finally–and most importantly–students should understand that they are in fact paying for our opinions. That’s not to say that faculty members should necessarily be telling students what to think, but we do have a responsibility to teach them how to think. And that involves, in part, exposing them to what others have thought–including, when appropriate, ourselves.

The truth is that much of what I say in class, from the points I make about literary works to the way I teach argumentative writing, is (objectively speaking) a matter of opinion. Or, if we’re not comfortable with the word “opinion,” perhaps we can call it “professional judgment.” Certainly, it’s informed opinion, based on decades of training, study, and experience; in many cases, it’s probably consensus opinion, reflecting the best minds in my field. But in the final analysis, it’s still opinion.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Ultimately, that is what students are paying us for: not just what we know, but what we think about what we know, the well-tended and painstakingly-harvested fruits of our long intellectual husbandry.

Yet somewhere along the line, students seem to have acquired the notion that college professors are supposed to be mere dispensers of knowledge, functioning as a sort of human Wikipedia–or at least, the way they imagine that Wikipedia functions, not realizing, perhaps, how much of what’s posted there is ultimately someone’s opinion.

Additionally, the current emphasis on “customer service” in academe seems to have given some students the impression that they have the right to “purchase” only those ideas that they personally agree with, and that all other ideas or opinions are at best irrelevant and at worst akin to faulty products or unsatisfactory service.

No wonder Arum and Roksa found that so many students aren’t developing critical-thinking skills in college. How can they, when the culture tells them that they don’t have to grapple with ideas they don’t like–ideas that, in their minds, they’re “not paying for.”

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user Kristoffer M.C.]

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