As I said last week, first-year students often struggle with forming and expressing personal opinions based on assigned reading, and with reading comprehension itself.  Last week, in Rules of Engagement, Part 1, I discussed the reading comprehension issue and offered tips for improving both comprehension and engagement.

Today, Part 2 is about the other half of the problem: forming and expressing personal opinions.

The source of the problem is simple:  First-year students are not often enough trained to think critically, and thus many of them are ill-equipped to take a carefully-considered position on much of anything.  Therefore, when asked for an opinion, they too often fall back on knee-jerk reactions, and they often do so hesitantly, qualifying each statement with an “I think” or “I feel” or “In my opinion.”

This is because too many of them have been told, all too often, that their opinions don’t matter, and to “stick to the facts” when writing papers.  Students are too often led to believe that facts are solid, static, and unchanging, and that “education” consists almost exclusively of successfully memorizing them.

And in many of their K-12 classrooms, that’s fine.  Even in many college-level survey courses, the memorization of information is necessary to an understanding of that information.

But they need to do more than memorize.  Learning and memorizing are not the same thing.  And the thing is, facts are darned slippery little buggers.  Don’t believe me?  Let’s try a little challenge.

How many planets are there?  If you grew up in my generation, you’ll say nine, because we grew up knowing for a FACT that there were nine planets.  But then you’ll stop, confused, because Pluto, as you know, is no longer considered a planet.  And meanwhile, we also now know that hundreds of thousands, if not billions, of other planets are busily revolving around other Suns than our own.  There are many, many more than nine.  Nine, or even eight, is an overly simplistic, knee-jerk response.   The facts have changed.

Who discovered America?  If you automatically said Christopher Columbus, you might not know he never set foot on North American soil at all.  Most people know he took Indians back with him to Spain, but many don’t know he took them there to sell them as slaves—or that many argue this constituted the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade.  He also enslaved them right there on Hispaniola, sending them out to fill hawks’ bells with gold.  If they returned without sufficient gold, their hands were cut off.  Tell me again–why is he considered a hero?  And if we just ignore his geography and say he discovered the Americas (note the S), then I ask, Why do we consider it a discovery at all?  Just because Europeans didn’t know it was there?  Millions of people were living here already.  They certainly knew it was here.

My point, of course, is that the “fact” that Columbus discovered America and the “fact” that he’s a hero are both in wide dispute—yet a great many of today’s history textbooks persist in ignoring these debates, even though they’ve been raging for a good twenty years.

What’s healthier, butter or margarine?  Is coffee good for you?  Should pregnant women drink wine?  How many eggs should you eat per week?  The “facts” about all of these have changed multiple times just in the past few years.

Facts are slippery.

Yet K-12 students continue to focus most of their intellectual energy on memorizing them, in whatever shape they happen to present themselves in their classrooms and textbooks.

Students need to stop memorizing and start thinking.  Challenging.  Questioning.  They shouldn’t be taught to ask only WHAT, but more importantly, also WHY and HOW.  But even the answers to those questions generally constitute facts based on other people’s opinions.  When do the students get to form their own?  When will they be encouraged to form their own?

In too many cases, not until they get to college.

All of these problems have roots in what Paulo Freire calls “the ‘banking’ concept of education,” which itself is the result of the power struggle between teachers and students.

Many K-12 teachers are overworked.  Many, unfortunately, are uninspired.  Many are simply victims of a system that is the way it is, and has been that way for generations.  And as a result, many classrooms are run as hierarchies, wherein the teacher is the Information Provider and the students are the Information Absorbers.  As Freire puts it, “In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry.”

College is all about, or should be all about, the process of inquiry.  All educators should nurture this process.

But too many first-year students are accustomed to being told to keep their opinions to themselves.  Too many of them are told, “Nobody cares what you think—just give me the facts.”

In other words, soak up everything I’ve told you, memorize it, and squeeze it back out for me on Friday’s test, unchanged, unchallenged, and without question.

Students who question, who challenge, who butt heads with the prescribed realities are often labeled troublemakers.  Many teachers will tell you the brightest kids in the room are often the most disruptive.

Surprise, surprise.

While it’s true that most college instructors will wince and squirm at every “I think,” I feel,” “I believe,” and “In my opinion” that appears in a student paper, that doesn’t mean we’re not interested in hearing what our students think.  In fact, most of us are very interested indeed in learning what our students think, and in nurturing their thinking processes.

But this is not to say we want to hear knee-jerk, canned, propagandized regurgitations of other people’s opinions.  We don’t.

Do not tell me a writer “does an excellent job” of blah blah blah.

Do not tell me you “completely agree” with someone else’s position.

Form your own.

If you can present that position in a paper without falling back on “I think” and “I feel,” and if you can defend it logically and cogently, then you will begin to develop confidence that your opinion matters.

Because it does.

 

The Freire quotes were taken from Chapter 2 of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which I encourage you to read in its entirety here:  http://www2.webster.edu/~corbetre/philosophy/education/freire/freire-2.html