Trent Kays: A teacher's imperative is to allow opinions to be shared

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Teachers need to show children having an opinion isn't a bad thing, writes Trent Kays. Photo / Thinkstock
Teachers need to show children having an opinion isn't a bad thing, writes Trent Kays. Photo / Thinkstock

Every semester, I enter my classroom with almost zero knowledge of my students' interests. So as a rhetoric and writing teacher, I ask them to employ that which is most beneficial to them in their lives: discourse.

I want to know what they think, why they think it, and how they see themselves in the elegant mess we call the world. Indeed, it becomes partly my charge to help students understand how their perspectives are relevant to my course.

I believe that by relating their interests to the focus of the course, they can become invested in learning instead of simply students there to be fed information. All teaching is inherently collaborative, and it's an act in partnership with students.

The worst thing a teacher can do is tell students what and how to think. According to Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire, this type of teaching borders on intellectual violence upon another, and where teaching is meant to be a liberating affair, it becomes one of systemic oppression.

In many circumstances, I tell my students the classroom is a space for learning. It is a space to explore and discover ideas without fear of being dismissed or lambasted. I tell them their perspectives, life experiences and ideas are equally important to mine and the subject material at hand.

After hearing this, many sit astonished at the idea their opinions are actually going to be heard. Unfortunately, I hear from students all too often that their opinions, perspectives and ideas are secondary to their teachers' or even not valued. I find this preposterous. Education is about enlightenment and not the subjugation of one idea for another.

Accordingly, as I read Patrick Stokes' recent article - "No, you're not entitled to your opinion" - I wondered exactly how a highly educated teacher could hold such a perspective.

Following his argument, I understand that his ideas of truth and opinion are drawn from Plato. Plato's dedication to the certainty of objective truth poses a significant problem when wagered against post-modern understandings of the world in relation to the individual.

There is no objective truth because objectivity does not exist; there are only degrees of subjectivity. An opinion without evidence can be truth as much as fact with evidence can be a falsehood.

Facts are socially constructed, and they only exist because humans are willing to define and name them. This act of naming almost always positions one thing as the opposite to another. The bizarre form of dialectic at work here doesn't negate the issue that humans construct, name and set these things in opposition.

Objectivity is to eradicate bias, to say that one thing is and the other is not; however, at the root of this act is the actor, and the actor is never devoid of bias. Pierre Bourdieu suggests that opinion is a form of unspoken truth held by the society in which the opinion arose and exists.

The context of these truths is as important as the truths themselves. Outside of the context of a situation, the truth arising in said situation can be understood differently. Nothing exists outside of context.

So, in Stokes' classroom, his directive that students are not entitled to their own opinions may be a truth of that situation. However, in the larger world, his directive does not hold up. Students will encounter many truths and many situations challenging what they once considered a truth.

Plato's contempt for doxa is invalid in 21st century society.

I most certainly do not think Patrick Stokes is a poor teacher; he probably is an excellent one. Yes, students should be taught how to structure argument, how to use language to affect action, and how we can use evidence, empirical and anecdotal, to succeed in its premise.

But to say that a student isn't entitled to their opinion is to devalue the student. It is to suggest that the teacher's way is the right way, and the student is less than the teacher. These are hardly correct.

Without students, teachers would not be needed, and, conversely, without teachers, students would be lost. It's a symbiotic relationship based on respect.

This is why I always tell my students they are co-learners in my courses. We learn together, we collaborate together, and we try to figure out rhetoric and writing together.

When we approach argument and our students, we need to understand that the goal of education is to liberate them from whatever oppresses them. If opinions are the unspoken truths of our world, then it's our job to speak them, let students speak them, and show students how to construct their arguments with whatever truths are available.

* Trent Kays is graduate instructor and rhetoric and writing studies PhD student at the University of Minnesota.

- NZ Herald

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