June 21, 2013
June 21, 2013
If there's one teacher habit I find more annoying than having students practice those execrable self-introductions, it is proclaiming that students should both have opinions and express them.
I don't want my students to develop opinions
It’s a personal thing. I generally dislike opinions. I dislike opinionated people-- if they don't add anything to the conversational canon, that is. I don’t understand why I should be expected to have an opinion on every salient topic of the day. Sitting in a room with people full of opinions is grating and unedifying. One of the factors that most endears me to Japan, where I live and work, is that the majority of locals are not prone to spout opinions unless two social caveats are first met: 1) they know more about the topic than most, and 2) the opinion is presented at an opportune time, in the right company.
Doubtless there is more than one reader out there right now who is rolling his or her eyes and thinking, “Well, he’s sure pulled the carpet from under his own feet, because he’s expressing… an opinion.” Well, Bertrand Russell, this is the right time and place—that’s the whole point of the blogosphere—and I’ve got a few twists coming up-- which should be the main reason for self-expression. And the first of these is... I don’t want my students to develop opinions.
Insights reward and challenge
Why? Opinions are those fatuous, boring, predictable sound bites that bloat the comments sections under Yahoo articles or YouTube videos. First, I want my students to research the topic they are going to opine upon, unlike most online commentators, so that their beliefs are informed and do not add to the hackneyed tropes that constitute the great majority of public statements. Next, I want them to develop and express insights. Insights reward the reader, they challenge the listener, they further the discussion, advance the narrative. If the opinion does not contain any insight it is mayonnaise, it is processed cheese, it is happoshu (non-Japanese readers –look it up).
When I make the effort to read a novel, a book, an essay, an article, I am looking for insight, not opinion. Insight elucidates, enlightens, and educates. It raises the level of discussion, and with it, the esteem of the speaker or writer. Insights cause the reader or listener to raise their critical bars. Opinions stunt discourse. In short, if an opinion does not contain some actual insight it should be stifled. Opinions are to thought what belches are to speech. Opinions are like asphalt-- cheap, ubiquitous and thus ultimately ignorable.
But wait, there's more weaponry in my anti-opinion arsenal. Expressing opinions rarely demands a focus upon listening or understanding, the more a need to ‘express your opinion’ is upheld and trumpeted as virtuous the more likely it is that other positions will not be given due consideration.
Sometimes I have nothing meaningful to express
And sometimes I don’t have a meaningful position to express, not because I’m ignorant or ill-informed-- although I certainly am on some subjects-- but more commonly because the topic is too wide (“What do you think of Japan’s current government?”) to pigeonhole into a single opinion slot-and-filler. Or, the speaker is using the question largely as a loaded pretext to offer their own, now largely-exposed, views (“Do you think the government is doing enough to help the victims of the Fukushima incident?”-- In regard to that question, do you really expect the speaker to follow it up with, “I do!”?).
I've also heard teachers ask students questions along the lines of, "What do you think of the situation in Syria (or name any current trouble hotspot)?" On one such occasion, after the students predictably shuffled their feet and looked at the floor, the teacher expanded with, "Do you think it is terrible?" One badgered student was then made to respond with, "Yes, it is terrible." But his face said, "What do you want me to say? It's pretty damn obvious, isn't it?" I suppose that in the teacher's mind this type of conversation normally constituted a healthy 'exchange of opinions about topics of import'. But he subsequently attributed the student's reticence to apathy and ignorance. Sigh.
So there are also cultural factors that affect classroom opining. Now, you might be expecting the tired old, “People of different cultures are not always taught to give opinions,” line here but again I’m going to add a twist: In large blocks of the world (I’m looking at you in particular, East Asia) the classroom is simply not viewed as a suitable place to expound your views-- that to do so is indulgent, presumptuous, and wastes the time of others. Classrooms are for learning, not for peer testimonials. Opinions are for bars. Opinions in classrooms are like sweatpants at the Vicar’s Ball.
Opinions as oafish, childish and...
In depressingly widespread corners of the Anglosphere the following type of exchange might well pass as incisive political discourse:
A: What do you think of the ministry's new proposal?
B: Buncha corrupt idiots.
A: Me too! (High fives are exchanged)
The Japanese (or name your own local) stranger-sitting-next-to-you-at-the-sushi-bar's unwillingness to engage in, or otherwise endorse, such rarified discourse is often ascribed to political ignorance or apathy: "They don't want to discuss serious issues here" or "They haven't thought deeply about it (unlike us)."
The default interpretations offered by a large number of Western teachers is, unfortunately, a vast oversimplification of the reality. The opinions one hears most tend towards the stereotypical (“They don’t want to stand out in this culture.”—cue the obligatory Japanese ‘nail that sticks out’ proverb), the missionary (“Their society hasn’t advanced to our level yet. They need us to promote free thinking.”), or the sophomorically political (“Their authorities don’t want them to have or express opinions.”) rather than reflect upon the possibility that many people in the world see the Anglo-American propensity towards ‘speaking your mind’ as rather oafish, childish, or simply tres gauche.
'They accept the authoritative position without question'
There is also a marked propensity to infer from the lack of overt in-class opinion flexing that Japanese students (and I’ve often heard this extended to other nationalities by English teachers as well) don’t even have opinions and/or meekly accept the authoritative position without question. This is a lazy, self-serving, and often racist claim (it is curious how often self-professed ‘free, critical thinkers’ resort to explanations that elevate their own kind and belittle others).
You want to hear opinions from the locals? First, speak the language. Second, get to know the members well enough where they feel comfortable entrusting their innermost thoughts, where they can feel they’ll get a sympathetic (if not always agreeing) ear. Third, wait for the right time and place. Asking people for their opinions in public, in a classroom, is for many like asking them to stand in the nude in the same situation.
The elephant in the discussion room
Now, there is a rhetorical elephant sitting prominently in the middle of this rant and his name is ‘Critical Thinking’. Critical Thinking, as it is widely practiced in EFL programs, is another buzzword that gnaws at my bones. Many readers will surely have noticed how in the Yahoo/YouTube comment culture, the 'You need to learn some critical thinking' mantra is regularly invoked, effectively meaning: “Your opinion is not the same as mine.” Ideologues of every sociopolitical stripe are regularly subjected to this knee-jerk response. Disagreement with one's opponent is automatically interpreted, for his/her failure to accede to your superior wisdom, as a product of a ‘lack of critical thinking’ on their behalf.
Now, very few EFL teachers would be this blatantly partisan in their pedagogical application of the CT mantra, but the belief that locals (wherever that may be) lack the finely-honed critical skills owned by we EFL teachers is fairly widespread. This problem is, in my view, politically loaded. How so you ask?
Critical thinking as parroting the progressive viewpoint
I am a political centrist and have strong views, liberal and conservative, only on specific issues. I do not let an overall political compass guide my position on every issue and, to some extent, enjoy playing devil’s advocate with those who do habitually answer the bell for the extreme right or left (although I admit that these binary terms have lost their meaning these days—as if a leftist can’t possibly be a nationalist, chauvinist, homophobe, or racist). Now, I’ll go out on a limb here and claim that most EFL teachers-- the authority, the establishment to most of our learners—are politically liberal or left of center. There, I said it.
The problem this manifests in EFL classrooms is that critical thinking too often becomes associated with parroting the standard ‘progressive' view. To use a prominent Japanese example, and this a fight I have no particular dog in, let's look at the hot potato of Japanese whaling. Here are two commonly spewed ‘opinions’:
1. Whaling should continue because it’s part of Japanese culture.
2. Whaling should be stopped because it is cruel to animals.
My beef is that while both opinions expressed here are simplistic and hint at cavernous pitfalls, opinion #2 will surely be more likely to be regarded as an example of critical thinking.
So, why is it that an opinion which questions alleged authority is more readily given the appellation of critical thought, no matter how knee-jerk and jejune that opinion may actually be, whereas an opinion that expresses sympathy for, or agreement with, established authority is deemed to be lacking in CT? And why the underlying, yet persistent, cartoonish belief that authorities at any level somehow must be conservative, corporate-political CEO types-- the 70’s Concept Album view of the universe?
Knee jerk rejection as heroic 'free-thought'
Moreover, why is it so often assumed that ‘the media’, ‘society’ ("other people"), and ‘the powers-that-be’ are considered to be agents of reactionary oppression, while a wholesale, knee-jerk rejection of such agents is more readily treated as morally heroic free thought (“Politicians lie!” “I don’t trust mainstream media.”)? Why are beliefs that don’t point the critical finger at assumed authorities so summarily dismissed as uncritical, hand-me-down, obsequious, rhetorical compliance-- bereft of 'critical thought'?
Perhaps the specter of Critical Pedagogy still looms like a cancerous shadow in the methodological machinations of many an EFL teacher's pseudo-revolutionary hairdo. You may be aware of it-- the now largely outdated view that the ultimate purpose of classroom education should be to inculcate a critical consciousness of self and social justice that rejects the existing authoritative structure. This seems to me to be pretty much undergrad code meaning, “Creating free-thinking students who don’t accept the current power structure and think like progressives, such as Critical Pedagogy founder, Paulo Freire” (the gloss, and the irony, is completely mine).
The arrogance of Critical Pedagogy
Critical thinking in such cases has become associated solely with a certain type of politicized thought—it measures correctness of content, not validity and soundness of methods. It evaluates conformity to a belief system, not cognitive dexterity or philosophical prowess. It is a closed, set system masquerading as the indubitable end product of critical thinking. And there is no shortage of arrogance inherent in the belief that any critical trek through self and society would inexorably lead the learner to your personal philosophical camp.
The real problem with the whaling ‘arguments’ mentioned earlier is not simply that they are both uncritical, boring, cosmetic slogans that we’ve all heard a thousand times before, but that the argument becomes compounded by typically awarding one a 'critical thinking' kudos based on its progressive 'correctness'. Such vacuous commentary is typical of those cultures, either classroom or national, that place a premium upon the importance of having and giving an opinion.
Many EFL teachers are sensitive to the charge that language teaching can be construed as a type of imperialism. The ‘You should express your opinion’ mantra is the most obvious manifestation of this. In my opinion, of course.
So here's the summary, for those of you taking the test:
1. Cultivate insight over opinion.
2. Learners should be knowledgeable before expounding on a topic. This applies to other humans too.
3. Emphasize listening to and reading what others say/write carefully and sympathetically over spouting opinions.
4. Ask yourself if the classroom really is, or should be, a place where students exchange frank opinions.
5. Pop mantras do not constitute informed commentary no matter how much they might conform to what you consider to be 'the truth'.
6. Avoid jumping to self-serving interpretations regarding expressing opinions and the reasons the local populace might be less inclined to follow suit.
7. Critical thinking should not be associated with a particular sociopolitical bent, worldview, or mindset but rather with the ability to see a broad picture and develop informed beliefs by critically weighing the veracity and virtues of all the factors involved.