Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Education and "Opinions"

This essay just appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education today. Written by Gary A. Olson, the essay deals with the current trend towards revering opinion over analysis:

We seem to be witnessing the apotheosis of opinion, a trend that has grave consequences for all of us in higher education. A generation of students and others are training themselves not to become critical thinkers, not to search for evidence or support of an assertion, and not to hold themselves or others accountable for the assertions they make.

Students believe that their opinions are as valid as those of long-established scholars (Brown tells the story of a student in a philosophy course who dismisses Foucault after one reading because the student "has a different opinion" on the nature of discourse). Parents believe their opinion of how to run a university is as valid as those of university administrators. This leads, Brown writes, not only to a spate of lawsuits (the courtroom being often the final place where two warring opinions can do battle), but also to a detachment from the concepts of research, study, and critical thought.

I'm not one to say that there is a universal truth, and I'm certainly not a structuralist. However, I agree with Brown and his idea that we are living in a society where opinion trumps all. Forget truth -- we've got Colbert's "truthiness;" and our freewheeling abandonment of hierarchical structure gives us a classroom where any student can stand up and say "that's just Foucault's opinion."

I'm including this in my blog for a few reasons. Brown has already written about how the cult of opinion affects education, so I will write about how it affects theatre. We are currently in a period where directors -- particularly directors of Shakespeare -- feel as if playscripts are just some writer's opinion of how the play should be done. Without taking the time to study the play or the time period -- often after only a few readings -- out come the scissors and lines are trimmed, words are changed, characters are compressed, scenes are cut... all with the goal of better shaping the play into the director's opinion of what a play should be.

I'm directing Tartuffe next year as my final graduate school project. I'd like to direct the entire play without cutting or altering a single line. Who am I to trump Moliere? The reason we are still reading and performing Tartuffe now is because Moliere did a pretty damn good job the first time. (Same reason, btw, that we are still reading Foucault.)

This is not to say that theories won't change; certainly we learn new things and we move from structuralist to post-structuralist, from modern to postmodern, from a Western-centric to globally inclusive canon. (Well, we're still technically pretty far from a globally inclusive canon. This from the person who tried and failed to get a South Asian play on our university's season.) But they certainly won't be changed by an undergrad who sits in a classroom and says "I think this author's wrong" without taking the time to understand why or to propose an alternative theory.

The other reason I've got this on my blog has to do with... oh, I don't know, the giant issue at the center of my blogging. (No, it's not about getting stains out of white sweaters.) Opinion, it seems, is at the heart of our lack of cultural understanding. Obama was educated alongside Muslims, so he must be a terrorist, etc. And, of course, the multiplicity of opinions surrounding the idea of a white woman in a blue salwar, and my own responsibility for ensuring that I do not turn my experience of India into a series of "facts" based on opinion -- "India is this" or "India is that" based on my single, unencompassing viewpoint.

Hmmm. My next post will be about moving past opinion. In this day of competing theories, how does one consider and validate information? Anyway. Enough for now. My roommate has baked a cake.

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