An Opinion on Opinions

I love this new piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Web site, which reads, in part:

Apparently, nowadays an opinion will trump a fact, a reasoned argument, an empirically verified observation — even a treatise by an eminent scholar. An opinion is the great equalizer, and everyone has one. It silences all arguments, squelches all dialogue: That’s your opinion. End of discussion.

According to Gary A. Olson, the author of “That’s ‘Your’ Opinion,” the prevalence of opinion (particularly ill- or not-at-all-grounded opinion) masquerading as valid argument is something to deplore. Why? Well, for one thing, it’s anti-intellectual.

We seem to be witnessing the apotheosis of opinion, a trend that has grave consequences for all of us in higher education. A generation of students and others are training themselves not to become critical thinkers, not to search for evidence or support of an assertion, and not to hold themselves or others accountable for the assertions they make.

A major challenge for higher education in the years to come will be to ensure that logic, critical thinking, close reading, the scientific method, and the spirit of inquiry in general don’t become lost arts — lost to the imperative of opinion.

It’s a major challenge for writing workshops, too, especially MFA workshops, which are (theoretically, at least), conducted on an advanced, graduate level. Theoretically, “logic, critical thinking, close reading,” and so forth, actually matter in graduate-level discourse. Theoretically, you’re on the right side if that’s what you’re emphasizing.

Unfortunately, even MFA workshops fall prey to the primacy of “opinion.” I certainly saw that happen in my own experience as an MFA student.

I’ll spare you the details. But too often (and, to be frank, not only in those MFA workshops) I’ve had to endure being told that I should value certain other people’s ideas simply because they were their ideas. Never mind their accompanying lack of expertise, evidence, or simple logic/facts.

Lawrence Summers may have (had) his enemies, but I continue to endorse the view Harvard’s former President expressed awhile back in The New York Times Magazine: “The idea that we should be open to all ideas […] is very different from the supposition that all ideas are equally valid.”

I’m guessing that Olson would agree, too.

(A real paradox I’ve observed is that those most confident in their opinions so often seem to be those least worthy of such self-assurance. I know a few quite well-read and knowledgeable people who hesitate to share their “opinions” because they still consider others far better-informed. [A memory returns as I write this: Fifteen years ago one professor faulted me for waiting until the very end of my senior honors thesis before “choosing to express an opinion.” But what did my little opinion matter set against the words of the historians and journalists I was quoting throughout the text?] And yet, I’ve encountered probably just as many people who, while seeming to possess very limited knowledge about a particular subject, display no hesitation to push their views on others. Interesting, isn’t it?)

3 thoughts on “An Opinion on Opinions

  1. rraven says:

    Yes, interesting article, but it still doesn’t explain why my poems are rejected by Poetry.

    Not that I’m bitter, or anything…

  2. Anonymous says:

    Sounds like you’re referring to John Freeman. Or Jimmy Carter.

  3. ERIKA DREIFUS says:

    Raven–Hmm. I’m wondering if you’re referring to the earlier post (on the Poetry Foundation)? Or on the “opinions” of those who determine what gets included in the magazine?

    And as for your comment, Anonymous–what can I say?

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