Why We should encourage opinions in the philosophy classroom

In response to Miss Cox's blog: https://missdcoxblog.wordpress.com/2021/10/17/giving-opinions-in-re-why-its-problematic-in-my-opinion/

These points are well considered. I particularly like the concept of the lenses and the questioning about how one’s current thinking has been shaped. I think this inspires metacognition which is essential - although, perhaps, a later question. There are some points I disagree with:

Firstly, when anyone says that not all opinions are valid they are pushing an ideology. This (in our fora) is usually the liberal consensus which is fine but it marginalises those with more conservative views.

Since homosexuality has been discussed as an example, let’s run with that one:

It might well be that the majority of us are of the opinion that God cares little about whose bits touch whose bits - i.e. that sexuality is not God’s main concern. We probably have a better understanding of those biblical texts (none of which talk about sexuality but refer to particular practices - only two embargoes in the Torah for homosexual sex which might be - as Cox rightly mentions - more to do with temple prostitution, and referring to the male taking a subservient role in sex; the Sodom story being clearly about hospitality, not sexuality; St. Paul’s listing of ‘homosexual offenders’ in his huge list of sins and sinners, and his mention of lesbians totalling the scriptural pronouncements on - but more like related to - the subject) than the pupils we teach. Nevertheless, this is only one (Christian, or Jewish) tradition. Islam has an (historically) clearer and more ‘conservative’ stance yet.

It doesn’t really matter, however. If a pupil believes, for example, that God created man and woman for exclusively [hetero]sexual relationships, then saying that opinion is less valid than another is to preference one exegesis over another. We should be teaching pupils HOW to exegete scripture (as part of their theological education) which includes presenting different interpretations. We should not shut down interpretations we happen to disagree with. This is Mill’s "tyranny of the majority” which he warned about in On Liberty.

We end up modelling the vile, iconoclastic, “cancel culture” which is so insidious in the generation we teach. You only have to read the news to see how those who espouse what (were, and probably are,) mainstream views are vilified by an overly politicised “woke” sub-community. The recent outrage over a comedian’s comments, defending the (so-called) TERF position epitomises the need for us, as teachers, to defend the free thinking and free speech.

Often, when I start teaching a controversial topic (such as abortion, which I’m currently teaching to Y11) I use the classic ‘go and stand along this line according to how far you agree with this statement’. Of course, I have worked hard to build up a culture in the classroom where we enjoying listening to others’ ideas and we never ridicule them - although we do challenge and critique them.

The reason why Mill was so adamant about defending free speech was that he knew that there is not a monopoly on truth and (much as Hegel) there probably needs to be some synthesis between extreme positions. Hence, as he astutely argues - in allowing someone to say they think X, it allows others to challenge it. Either X will be falsified (Not-X [which might be Y or Z…] will be shown to be correct) or X will triumph. (Not-X will be shown to be false) - or, more likely, something in the middle. (Aristotle’s law of the excluded middle aside - i.e. Not-X might look more like X than, say, Y). Our subject advances with dialectic and stifling views - does our subject a disservice.

Of all classrooms, then, ours should be the safe space for pupils to test out their opinions. It is not the opinions, or expressions of opinions we should be concerned with, but how we help pupils to foster reasoned (and informed) opinions.

We do this by questioning.

For example, if a pupil says they think abortion is murder, we will ask how they define murder, and what assumptions they are making about the status of the embryo. On the other hand, if a pupil says they think abortion is merely a woman’s issue, we will ask what assumptions they are making about the embryo as related to (or in, or part of) the woman’s body. The point is, that whilst we will all have our own ideological/philosophical/theological opinions about these issues, we are not saying to the pupils that the (to use an over-simplified short-hand for brevity) position of either the pro-choice or pro-life camp have more or less merit, but that both these opinions have been formed in conjunction with others - and rely upon several assumptions - both metaphysical and otherwise.

In this regard, I concur with what Miss Cox writes about asking the pupils to think about how their learning and experience, hitherto, has contributed to their thinking - but asking them for an opinion is an important first step.

Plato: Opinion and Judgments

If we go back to Plato, “pistis” (or belief/opinion) is rather low down on the Divided Line - only just above eikasia (illusion) and below dianoia (reason). For Plato, we form opinions based on the shadow-land of the material world. Many opinions have been so formed but it may be that we are presuming that our students have not gone through a process of reasoning and formed opinions, or ideas, which are logical. Indeed, I think there is a danger of patronising our pupils if we think that they could not have formed genuine opinions - which I prefer to call judgements.

Perhaps this is, actually, a better word - and I’m sure we can all agree that we want our students to become better thinkers and to take ownership of their learning. The difference, then, between an opinion and a judgement is that the former is, perhaps, a semi-unconscious position, often arrived at through some sort of osmosis of cultural-educational-parental indoctrination or experience. A Judgement has been formed through a process of dialectic interrogation and a meta-cognitive awareness.

My initial opinion of the Mona Lisa is that I wouldn’t pay to have it on my wall. I prefer Monet’s Woman With a Parasol, Facing Right, for example:

My aesthetic opinion is a bit of a gut reaction. The Mona Lisa is, I think, ugly. I could study both paintings, appreciate the golden ratio in the Mona Lisa, the use of shadow over eye and lips to give that infamous smile and so forth - but still prefer the colour palette and the impressionism of the Monet. My Judgement concurs with my initial opinion but

my Judgement is validated by my engagement with the criticism of my opinion.
No such engagement can occur without the initial expression of my opinion.

Thus it will always be useful to invite pupils to voice their opinions as a prelude to further interrogation.

The Danger of Not Encouraging Opinions

There is another danger, however, if we do not allow pupils to voice their opinions: they will likely hold fast to them anyway and not interrogate them. If these opinions are (what we consider) insidious (for example, that women are inferior to men) they will go unchecked. This is what the PREVENT agenda was about (however much we like or dislike it): education is the only tool to combat extremism (where is meant the sort of opinions that lead to violence). That means we need to know what pupils are thinking.

Of course, this sounds a little hypocritical because it seems I have now said that some opinions are ‘wrong’ and need to be ‘corrected.’ In truth I think many opinions are wrong - otherwise I would not have the opposite opinion. I have formed judgements about ethical issues, for example, as well as aesthetic ones. I do not feel it is my duty as an educator (indeed it would be contrary to my duty) to impose or ‘correct’ the ‘incorrect’ judgements of my pupils - except where they might tend towards violence or harm. Thus if a pupil says they think that gay people should be beaten, I will stamp it out.

How students with minority opinions feel

Lastly, Miss Cox ask how a student would feelif they express an opinion contrary to that of the others in the class. I was usually that student and I took great joy in defending my position and hoping to win others to my side. Sometimes I would accede the others’ position. In my experience of teaching, those who have opinions which buck the current trend are equally enthusiastic about them - it is why they express that opinion and not the default zeitgeist. They will only feel uncomfortable with expressing an apparently “extreme” (because, not shared by the majority) opinion if we make them feel uncomfortable - if we fail to model interrogating all opinions, and merely pick on those not commonly held. This is why I believe it behoves us as teachers of philosophy and theology (or RE, whatever you want to call it) most particularly to treasure, safeguard, encourage, foster, and equip pupils to express opinions, in order to move from mere opinion to reasoned judgements - and so that they can go to bed that night having thought hard about their thoughts and assumptions - so they can ultimately form judgements that are truly theirs, and not those of their parents, peers, or TikTok subscriptions.

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