Giving opinion its due

I have been thinking about Justin P. McBrayer’s New York Times op-ed, “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts.” McBrayer notes that schools implicitly tout moral relativism by having students distinguish repeatedly between “fact” and “opinion.” According to McBrayer, this creates confusion: Not all truths are proven facts, and not all opinions are “mere” opinion. Unfortunately, when given “fact vs. opinion” exercises,  students learn to treat all value statements as opinion. For instance, the statement “killing for fun is wrong” would count as opinion, when, in McBrayer’s view, it should be treated as fact. Over time, after performing many such exercises, students conclude (without thinking the matter through) that there are no moral facts.

I would take McBrayer’s argument one step further (or maybe in a direction he didn’t intend). Opinion itself was not always viewed as a one-off statement of belief or prejudice. It involved reasoning, choice, and judgment about things that were not fully known or proven. The word derives from the Proto-Indo-European *op- (“to choose”) and later from the Latin opinari (“think, judge, suppose, opine”). The OED gives, as its first definition of “opinion,” “What or how one thinks about something; judgement or belief. Esp. in in my opinion: according to my thinking; as it seems to me. a matter of opinion : a matter about which each may have his or her own opinion; a disputable point.” John Milton’s elevates the concept of opinion in his speech Areopagitica: “Opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making”; a similar idea appears in Thomas Usk’s The Testament of Love: “Opinyon is whyle a thyng is in non certayne, and hydde from mens very knowlegyng.” (Both quotes are included in the OED entry.)

Yet for all its former respectability, opinion has always run the risk of falling back on prejudice and superstition. This is particularly true of group opinion. John Stuart Mill argues for freedom of individual expression precisely because the alternative—unconsidered public opinion—holds so many dangers and so much power:

Men’s opinions, accordingly, on what is laudable or blamable, are affected by all the multifarious causes which influence their wishes in regard to the conduct of others, and which are as numerous as those which determine their wishes on any other subject. Sometimes their reason—at other times their prejudices or superstitions: often their social affections, not seldom their anti-social ones, their envy or jealousy, their arrogance or contemptuousness: but most commonly, their desires or fears for themselves—their legitimate or illegitimate self-interest. Wherever there is an ascendant class, a large portion of the morality of the country emanates from its class interests, and its feelings of class superiority.

Ironically, to protect individual opinion, one must also release it, to some degree, from responsibility Mill does not say this outright, but it seems to follow from his argument:

This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological.

If I can say whatever I want about any subject, if I am not bound to standards of research and reasoning, then my opinion is unfettered but also potentially trivial. On the other hand, if only the qualified elite may speak, then, as Mill notes, certain prevailing opinions go unquestioned while bright and necessary challenges are suppressed.

So, as opinion becomes liberated, it also degrades—to where it becomes near-synonymous with “something that can’t be taken seriously.” As McBrayer points out, the Common Core includes the standard “Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.” How did “opinion” become separate from “reasoned judgment”? The standard seems to imply that opinion does not involve judgment or reasoning; that is both peculiar and telling. One can have the best of both worlds: freedom of opinion combined with recognition that opinion can be well or poorly formed.

From what I have seen of the Common Core in word and practice, it treats opinion and argument as separate. Something that can’t be supported with “evidence” is regarded as mere opinion; something that can has a more elevated status. But facts are not always definitive and must be selected out of many; moreover, there are good arguments that don’t have “evidence” behind them. As a result, there is little room (and no good word) for inquiring into matters of uncertainty—matters that cannot be proven one way or another but that require more than a snap judgment.

To return to McBrayer’s example, killing for fun is wrong—few would dispute that—but why? Why did he not say “killing of any kind, for any reason, is wrong”? Perhaps he was leaving room for the possibility that killing may sometimes be necessary and thus not altogether wrong. In that case, how is “killing for fun” different? Let’s assume he is referring to the killing of humans; if it is true that human life has dignity (which, for the sake of brevity, I won’t define here), then human life should not be taken lightly. Kill if you must (though some would argue that there is never such necessity), but don’t kill gratuitously, whatever you do. Thus, “killing for fun is wrong” follows—or at least can follow—from the axiom that human life has dignity. I have not given any “evidence” that killing for fun is wrong, but I have identified a possible axiom behind the statement.

Opinion does not have to be trivial; it runs the gamut between folly and wisdom. Instead of dismissing opinion, schools should teach students to form theirs as well as they can.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

(I am delighted to be guest-blogging along with Rachel, Michael, and Darren. I probably won’t post anything else this week but will be back on April 4.)


Public trusts teachers, but not their unions

Americans trust teachers, but not their unions, concludes the annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll.

More than 70 percent of respondents have confidence in public school teachers; 69 percent give local teachers an A or B. However, nearly half say teachers’ unions hurt public education.

Three out of four said they’d encourage a bright student to become a teacher; 67 percent would like their own child to choose a public-school teaching career.

Americans increasingly support school choice, but only one of three favors vouchers, the poll reported.

Consistent with past findings, Americans believe teacher salaries should be based on multiple factors, including advanced degrees, experience, and the principal’s evaluations of the teacher. Students’ scores on standardized tests were rated as least important. Similarly, Americans believe that school districts should use multiple factors to determine which teachers should be laid off first, rather than basing it primarily on seniority (last hired, first fired).

College prepares graduates for the workforce, respondents said, but not all believe a college degree is sufficient for readiness.

Even more so than in the past, Americans give high marks to local schools, low marks to the nation’s schools, notes Rick Hess.

I’ll start by noting that I’m not a huge fan of the American public right now. After all, we’re the twits who demand lots of services but don’t want to pay for them. And then we get angry when our leaders can’t square this circle. We insist that they take painful steps to rein in spending, and then complain when they try to do it. In short, we’ve shown all the character and discipline of an irate preschooler.

While Americans strongly prefer small classes, 80 percent “believe that high school classes with more students and a better teacher would result in higher student achievement than would smaller classes with less effective teachers,” Hess notes.

Public, teachers’ views split on reform

Teachers’ views on education issues have diverged from public opinion in the last year, concludes a Harvard survey. Take the survey here.

The public splits on whether teachers’ unions have a positive or negative influence; teachers defend their unions more strongly.

Public opposition to teacher tenure edged upward; teachers support tenure more than ever. Public support for basing tenure on student academic progress increased from 49 percent to 55 percent, but only 30 percent of teachers agreed.

The public supports merit pay by a 47 to 27 percent margin. Only 18 percent of teachers favor merit pay and 72 percent oppose it.

The public agrees with teachers on one issue: 55 percent of the public and 82 percent of teachers favor higher pay. Only 7 percent of the public would cut teacher pay.

However, public support for higher teacher pay falls to 42 percent when those surveyed are told how much the average teacher in their state is currently paid.

Given a choice between increasing teacher salaries and reducing class sizes, the public opted for smaller classes. Told that “reducing average class sizes by three students would cost roughly the same amount as increasing teacher salaries by $10,000,” 44 percent chose class-size reduction and 28 percent selected increasing teacher salaries.

Teachers split on whether to opt for higher pay or smaller classes.

By a strong margin, the public favored teachers paying a percentage of their benefit costs, while teachers overwhelmingly reject this cost-cutting measure.

Public support for vouchers increased: 47 percent backed “a proposal to give families with children in public schools a wider choice, by allowing them to enroll their children in private schools instead, with government helping to pay the tuition.”

Forty-three percent of the public — and 45 percent of teachers — supported charter schools; a minority are anti-charter and many are undecided.

Teachers' unions lose media support

Teachers’ unions have lost media support, write Richard Whitmire and Andrew Rotherham in the Wall Street Journal.

Quick: Which newspaper in recent editorials called teachers unions “indefensible” and a barrier to reform? You’d be excused for guessing one of the conservative outlets, but it was that bastion of liberalism, the New York Times. A month ago, The New Yorker—yes, The New Yorker—published a scathing piece on the problems with New York City’s “rubber room,” a union-negotiated arrangement that lets incompetent teachers while away the day at full salary while doing nothing. The piece quoted a principal saying that union leader Randi Weingarten “would protect a dead body in the classroom.”

Things only got worse for the unions this past week. A Washington Post editorial about charter schools carried this sarcastic headline: “Poor children learn. Teachers unions are not pleased.” And the Times weighed in again Monday, calling a national teachers union “aggressively hidebound.”

What happened? Public opinion shifted to favor accountability, “no excuses” charter schools showed poor urban kids can learn and President Barack Obama bucked the unions to push for charter schools, testing, performance pay and firing bad teachers.

Data collected under No Child Left Behind provisions has made it  easier to figure out which teachers are succeeding, Whitmire and Rotherham write.

“Data and results are challenging an industry that was traditionally driven by hope, hype and good intentions,” says Jane Hannaway, the director of education policy at the Urban Institute. Ms. Hannaway argues that in the long run these emerging databases may be the most important dividend of today’s school accountability policies.

Inner-city students are doing so poorly that many blacks and other Democrats are willing to try just about anything to get change.