What You Should Learn in the Classroom about Expressing Your Opinion (Especially in College)

Watershed moments in your life can be exaggerated I am sure through the lens of memory, but I have a vivid recollection of one such moment in my 10th-grade English class with Mr. Harrill.

English throughout junior high had been a series of grammar book exercises and what felt like an entire year of sentence diagramming in 9th grade. Then one day in Mr. Harrill’s class we had a full-class discussion.

Except for the weekly tedium of vocabulary tests, Mr. Harrill taught us that English class was about reading, writing, and thinking—often aloud. In other words, English became a place where we all explored ideas as a community in order to shape our own views of the world around us.

One day Mr. Harrill was being observed by the principal, Mr. Simpkins (his two sons, one a year ahead and one a year behind me, were friends), who just about 8 years later would be my principal as I took Mr. Harrill’s position and entered that same room as a high school English teacher.

The class quickly slipped into debate (I am not sure that was Mr. Harrill’s lesson plan) about whether or not we would serve in war if drafted. The class quickly divided into two camps—all the boys except me proclaimed their patriotic zeal for serving while I joined the girls in saying I would not serve because I rejected the concept of war.

Years later when I interviewed with Mr. Simpkins, he recalled that day, and pushed me on whether or not I was serious (Mr. Harrill had apparently explained after that class that I was prone to being the devil’s advocate in the class).

One of Mr. Harrill’s many gifts as a teacher was his ability to instill in us both passion for ideas and words as well as a sense of community; we listened and we shared. I genuinely don’t recall anyone being inappropriately upset even though I recall many of us being uncomfortable.

Another lesson came in college—where professors and classmates were incredibly smart, where professors began to define boundaries for sharing our comments in informed and credible ways.

The best thing about college for me was learning to listen and recognizing that being smart was mostly about stepping back, acknowledging your assumptions, and then moving forward grounded in evidence. Honestly, despite the popular narrative that being an English major is a wasted major, I learned much of this through the demands of literary analysis.

In short, don’t say something about a text unless you can ground your comments in the actual text.

Being a student was such a vibrant and important experience for me, I became an English teacher. As I noted above, I entered my old English classroom as the teacher in the fall of 1984 (an ominous year it seems now in the current climate of educational gag orders).

For 18 years, I committed myself to providing the same sort of experiences for my students that Mr. Harrill gave to me; it was a gift and I was determined to pay it forward.

Classes were discussion-based and my students wrote a tremendous amount. English was about ideas, and the focus was teaching my students in ways that helped them become the people they wanted to be.

Many class sessions were uncomfortable, even tense, because we confronted race/racism and religion quite often—among the many complex topics raised over and over in literature.

Students were often frustrated at each other, and several were deeply frustrated with me.

But we were a community, and my students learned the boundaries of academic discussion much earlier than I did. For many years, I had former students reach out from college to thank me for my classes and those lessons (often about their ability to write, but that was also about their ability to think in informed and complex ways).

I have now been teaching at a selective university for twenty years, since the fall of 2002.

One of the hardest parts of that transition is that my university students are very quiet; classroom discussions have often paled when compared to my own experiences as a student and my 18 years teaching high school English.

That dynamic was very frustrating in my first years so I began collecting anonymous survey about student attitudes surrounding talking aloud in class.

Consistently for many semesters, I found a pattern. Students did not like to speak aloud in class for a few reasons: (1) Not wanting to be “wrong” in front of peers, (2) not wanting to be “wrong” in front of the professor, and (3) not wanting to “give away” knowledge to peers who hadn’t done the reading.

What I must stress is that the survey and discussions about that feedback were very clear that the hesitations about talking in class have been academic, not ideological. Students are quiet because of their fear of being graded, evaluated, not because they felt they were being ideologically silenced.

In fact, student feedback I receive regularly describes my class as a safe space to express student views. But students also recognize that our classes are spaces where evidence and awareness are expected.

Since I teach first-year students and several introductory class, we often explore what students should avoid expressing aloud in terms of eroding their credibility (not in terms of hiding their ideologies).

For example, I just explained to a student about the problems behind the term “hysterical,” and cautioned them to stop using the word now that they are better informed.

Learning to be careful with language is not censorship or being cancelled; learning to be careful with language is a part of being an educated and ethical human.

The standards for discussion are much higher in the classroom than among friends at the bar, or even for presidential debates. Claims must be supported in the classroom.

And of course, this is a long and winding way to confront the recent Op-Ed in the New York Times and then referenced in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The commentary by Emma Camp speaks into a very lazy and (ironically) ideologically skewed narrative that colleges are liberal echo chambers where conservative students are silenced and shamed.

As Oyin Adedoyin examines in The Chronicle, however, evidence doesn’t clearly support that narrative:

In surveys, there’s some evidence that students are worried about how their beliefs will be viewed by their peers. Yet there’s also evidence that most students, across all political affiliations, feel encouraged by their institutions to speak freely and have never experienced discrimination based on their beliefs. In those surveys, a higher proportion of students of color report feeling unsafe on campus because of others’ speech.

Do Students Self-Censor? Here’s What the Data Tell Us

Camp’s piece presents a much different message than intended, I think, because the experiences she details seem to suggest that she did not learn the lessons I have identified above.

Academic discussions and debates are not about expressing your opinion, and certainly are not about expressing your opinion without consequences.

One incredibly important lesson of the classroom is that when you say something not credible, you should expect to be challenged, and even corrected.

I have had many students boldly express claims about people in poverty (characterizing them as poor), about gun violence, and such, prompting me to pull up research and evidence in order to show those claims are based in stereotypes and ideology but not evidence.

And then stressing that classroom discussions should be grounded in evidence. In academia, we value informed opinions.

Often, when students are corrected, they are not upset, or triggered; many, if not most of them, express aloud in class that they didn’t know that and appreciate the new information.

They experienced discomfort, and they started (or continued) a journey in personal growth.

These moments with my college students—incredibly bright and driven students—often remind me of those nonsense days of teaching high school English in the 1980s when we were tasked with test-prep during the early days of the standards and accountability.

One of the reading standards prescribed teaching the difference between fact and opinion. The prep material had nonsense examples such as noting “blue is the best color” is an opinion but “the sky is blue” is a fact.

Even my high school students would interrogate that by nothing that air is clear and that the blue is refracted light (and students also noted that we color bodies of water blue because even though water is also clear, large bodies of water reflect the sky). In other words, my high school students understood that there actually is no real clear distinction between fact and opinion.

There are credible claims, and there are claims without credibility.

What you should learn in the classroom about sharing your opinion, then, is not that all opinions are welcomed without consequence (which is what conservatives seem to be demanding for themselves while simultaneously advocating for actual state-imposed censorship), but that sharing your opinion carries with it a responsibility to ground that opinion in evidence—and then being prepared to be challenged.

A significant aspect of formal education dedicated to individual freedom and democracy is to avoid at all cost indoctrination while affording students many opportunities to interrogate their assumptions, stereotypes, and unexamined ideologies; formal education is a ticket out of provincialism.

Learning and growth are uncomfortable, in fact.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in Self-Reliance. “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.”

Commentaries such as Camp’s seems to be seeking the sort of intellectual and ideological spaces that leave you alone with the shadow on your wall, trapped in your own little mind.

What you should learn in the classroom about sharing your opinion is that there is much more in this world than your own opinions.