That’s Just Your Opinion!

One of the most common disparagements heard in those sanctioned mêlées sometimes called “class debates” is the argument that “that’s just your opinion!” It is also one of the most unfortunate. An important aim in any class that includes oral discourse should be to cultivate thoughtfulness and conversation, by means of which students examine ideas carefully. It allows them to test the ideas and to test themselves. Being quickly dismissive, on the other hand, evades thought and responsibility.

Part of the blame for poor discussion and conversation lies with the teacher who allows it, but the rest must go further back. I want to start with the dictum, often taught in grade school and reinforced in high school, that knowledge is of two kinds: fact and opinion. This dichotomy, in itself unhelpful, usually goes along with a belief that opinions are somehow of secondary weight or importance to facts, evidently because not everyone agrees on them.

I’ve got news for those who hold this belief: not everyone agrees on facts either, but that doesn’t keep them from being facts. More useful than the fact – opinion dichotomy is Professor Barzun’s distinction between facts and ideas, particularly as this distinction plays out in the study of history[1], where a fact is a datum nameable in conventional terms, and an idea is “an image, inference, or suggestion that goes beyond” such data. “The statement of a fact gives the impression of ending with itself, whereas an idea leads us on.”

So far are ideas from being of secondary weight or importance that without them, history is not just impossible, it is intolerable: “the ‘bare facts’ do not interest, in the sense of engaging the attention.” One of the formative effects of history should be to allow its students to see the treatment of ideas with a deftness and judgment that they might hope to acquire or at least to appreciate.

There is not much to say about the facts of the Monroe Doctrine except that “it was promulgated in a presidential message to Congress on December 2, 1823.” How, then, does the “authoritative work on the Monroe Doctrine[2]” by Dexter Perkins run to more than 1300 pages? Almost everything that can be said about the Monroe Doctrine goes beyond the facts and enters the realm of ideas.

I almost asked How will students learn to find their way in this realm? Instead, I need to ask Whether students will learn to find their way at all. It is a serious issue when they are kept from developing and exercising their own deftness and judgment by taking a proper history course, and when “class debates” have more to do with heated finger-pointing than with examining and teasing out the ideas that come into play in the course of a genuine discussion. Are the students going to develop and test their powers of analysis and synthesis by examining Great Issues in American History (Hofstadter)? Or will they prepare for multiple-choice tests by conning “just the facts” from purgatorial textbooks, which often turn out to have strong and questionable ideas embedded in their presentation? If these ideas are presented as facts, they do a disservice to intellect and they leave the students handling them impaired in their judgment, if not in their “class debates.”

Given the constraints of money, time, and Testing-and-Accountability being imposed on schools, they may not get a history course at all. It would be a terrible loss for today’s students not to be able to discover this way of thinking about the world that has the potential to make one wiser than one had been before taking it up. “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”—T. S. Eliot

[1] Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff, The Modern Researcher, Fourth Edition, p. 147 et seq

[2] ibid.


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