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Opinions are a curious commodity.  Everyone has the right to their own, and we are told that everyone’s is of equal value, but in practice some people’s can be dismissed and other people’s can be sold for money.  Various things have been making me think about opinions recently, from marking student essays[1] to listening to friends in the media discussing the point and function of columnists.  Last week I reread this marvellously bilious extract from (Cardinal) John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University:

Some one, however, will perhaps object that I am but advocating that spurious philosophism, which shows itself in what, for want of a word, I may call viewiness, when I speak so much of the formation, and consequent grasp, of the intellect. 

“Viewiness” is a marvellous term, contrasted in Newman’s thought with the steady, thoughtful and coherent “views” which the mind can take after sufficient training and knowledge[2].  He goes on to elaborate on the haphazard quality of “viewiness”:

An intellectual man, as the world now conceives of him, is one who is full of views on all subjects of philosophy, on all matters of the day.  It is almost thought a disgrace not to have a view at a moment’s notice on any question from the Personal Advent to the Cholera or Mesmerism. 

And, like a biretta’d Charlie Brooker or LRB essayist, Newman blames this on the rapid news-cycle of the 1850s:

This is owing in great measure to the necessities of periodical literature, now so much in request.  Every quarter of a year, every month, every day, there must be a supply, for the gratification of the public, of new and luminous theories on the subjects of religion, foreign politics, home politics, civil economy, finance, trade, agriculture, emigration, and the colonies.  Slavery, the gold fields, German philosophy, the French Empire, Wellington, Peel, Ireland, must all be practised on, day after day, by what are called original thinkers…The very nature of periodical literature, broken into small wholes, and demanded punctually to an hour, involves the habit of this extempore philosophy.

Whether or not the media are to be blame, many of us will recognise the obsession with “views” which Newman sketches with such biting energy.  From Comment Is Free to the New Statesman’s satirical article on the eight opinions one could hold on the alleged ending of Page 3 in the The Sun, continual opinions on any topic seem to drive a lot of public discussion.  It’s also the reason why certain people, such as the lawyer and legal commentator David Allen Green, refuse to go on programmes like Question Time, declaring that they give their informed opinions in their writing, and no-one should be interested in their uninformed opinions on topics they have no expertise in.

In the public forum, this issue of opinions is complicated by the very narrow section of our society who ever get to air their opinions in the media.  Whether avowedly expert and specialised or avowedly speaking “for ordinary decent people”, those who opine in public overwhelmingly (though not universally) share a socially privileged background.  (This culminated recently in Rhian E Jones’ exasperation at the spectacle of dozens of public-school-educated journalists debating the finer points of the question of class and personal achievement in the wake of James Blunt’s letter to Chris Grayling.)  So “views” may be personal, but the experiences which shaped them, and the opportunities to express them whilst others are listening, are part of larger social arrangements.  So “opinion” is an oddly double-edged word.  In different context, and from different people, it can be used to disavow responsibility (“but that’s just my opinion”) and dismiss others’ views (“well, everyone can have an opinion”) or to exert considerable power (“a legal opinion”).

Mike Higton’s Theology of Higher Education tackles the issue of opinions in a university context, and contrasts them with the “judgement” which he advances instead of them.  Students are, in his account of learning, invited to both judge and make themselves open to judgement:

In humanities disciplines like my own, this invitation can be a difficult one to convey to students who want to know what is expected of them.  Students regularly ask, when preparing to write an essay, ‘Do you want me to give my own opinions?’, and will as regularly claim to have been given different answers by their various teachers: they think they have been told by some that they should keep their own ideas to themselves, by others that they should share them.  Both answers are, of course, wrong: we do not want their opinions, we want their (increasingly independent, and increasingly well-formed) judgements.  The difficulty is that many students arrive with plenty of opinions, but not much recognition that they might be invited to judge.

“Judgement” is clearly not something that can be formed on the basis of a Comment Is Free piece, however well-informed and well-written.  Opinions can be produced from other people’s opinions, but judgement needs to be built up from contact with the material being judged, whether that is experience, texts, data or music.  Higton stresses that simply having a store of someone else’s judgement does not make someone able to produce their own judgements.  In explaining the distinction, he uses this analogy:

I have sometimes told my students to imagine that they are judges in a court of law, tasked with providing a written judgement.  Their job is to summarize evidence and testimony, explain the defence case that is built from that evidence and testimony and the prosecution case that is built on the same evidence and testimony, and then explain their judgement of the case.  To act as judge is not the same thing as acting as counsel for the defence or for the prosecution, nor is it that same as acting as an expert witness.  It means taking responsibility for weighing the cases made, overall and in their details, and giving a clear statement of one’s adjudication and of the reasoning that led to it.  I tell my students that I am looking for their own judgement, certainly – but that this is very different from asking for their opinions.

Higton notes that he only tells his students to adopt this judicial persona “sometimes”.  Obviously there are times when it would be ineffective, and when the issues aren’t as clear-cut as to allow a student to identify a “defence” and a “prosecution” to mediate between.  But it seems to guard against two tendencies which often creep into the writing I read both within the university and on the web.  (Not to mention the writing I find myself writing…)

Firstly, it focuses attention on the topic, or the subject being discussed.  This is not simply a matter of “answering the question” (though that never hurts) but of recognising that the essay is not an end in itself.  Producing stylish, well-referenced and satisfyingly complex pieces of writing is not the point of a humanities degree.  An essay can be all of those things and yet have very little reference to the point.  There is a risk, particularly in an era where “quality assurance” encourages a focus on processes and procedures as the hallmarks of a healthy institution, that we allow ourselves to believe that technique is the point of the humanities.  Or at least to act as if we did. We rightly emphasize skills, methods and approaches, in order to equip our students with the tools and tactics to carry out their work.  But there is a danger in implying that the task of an essay in the arts and humanities is to attempt a complex set of manoeuvres with a high level of difficulty and a flawless execution.

At other universities I have met students who had been through three years of an English Literature degree, and genuinely believed that “it doesn’t matter what you write, so long as you can back it up from the text”.  They were not uninterested in their subject, and they achieved good marks, but they had assumed that all the university required from them was to demonstrate their skills and collect a degree. I don’t think that they had either spontaneously developed this idea in opposition to the lecturing and teaching they had received, nor that it was entirely a hangover from A-Levels which has survived unscathed and fossilized through three years of a degree.  The way we talk about our subjects allowed them to maintain this idea, and  I think that behind the attitude lay both a very objective and a very subjective conception of learning, with no middle ground on which discussion might take place.

By that rather abstract phrase I mean that they assumed that learning was roughly quantifiable, and that a good degree from a good university was evidence of higher abilities than a less impressive degree from a less prestigious institution.  (Leaving aside what those terms might mean in practice, or what other factors might affect them.)  Thus their attitude was basically objective: marks, degree classifications and league tables admitted of the existence of quantifiable scales in education.  But the reasons they seemed to assume that anyone might have for choosing a particular course of study were highly subjective.  Personal taste, what you enjoyed, what you had a knack for, what you personally valued; these could all determine which of those roughly quantifiable and roughly equivalent subjects you spent your three years (and your fees) on.  But that personal choice or personal aptitude was a rather isolated and subjective category, which initially directed your activity within a large and objective field of endeavour, but then had nothing to contribute to the way you carried it out or how your work related to those around you.  This seemed to underpin the odd coupling of “it doesn’t matter what you say” (so subjective and undetermined to the point of whimsy) and “so long as you can back it up from the text” (the demonstration of an objective skill which ends the debate.)

The missing middle ground is the issue which Higton’s model points towards: that the arts and humanities do actually study something.  We are concerned with texts, events, images, ideas, objects, which exist in the space beyond either personal whim or league tables.  We carry out an ongoing discussion which cannot be closed down either by technical quantification or solipsism.  His judicial metaphor makes clear that constructing a brilliant argument which flies in the face of the facts is a form of failure, since an essay is not a closed system within which anything goes according to how you’ve defined the terms.

Technique matters, and methodology is always worth examining, but they’re so important because they’re part of a larger endeavour.  They serve the ongoing discussion and investigation which constitutes the arts and humanities.  Though there is no conclusion to those processes, the conclusions of individual essays matter.  If it is not possible to be wrong, then it is not possible to be right.  And surely there are areas where the arts and humanities touch our lives – questions of how we live, how we feel and how we treat each other – in which we wouldn’t want to be cut off from the possibility of being right or wrong.  Or of explaining why it might matter.

Secondly, there is another tendency which Higton’s image helps to guard against, which apparently pulls in the opposite direction to the humanities as displays of pure technique (though I think they have much in common.)  Writing on culture sometimes displays an implicit attitude that the conclusion is everything.  This assumes that the spread of theories and approaches offered to the student – Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytic, historicist – matter very much indeed.  They are not just flavours of intellectual fashion, or tools which suit some texts better than others, but whole worldviews and systems of thought.  Thus once it has become clear that one approach has the status of an ethical imperative, the terms of reference have been decided.  This often produces very lively writing, and a conviction that great issues are at stake in the discussion of a particular event or artefact.

But it assumes that the conclusion is the overriding issue: that an essay is a success so long as it can demonstrate some favourite maxims about the world.  As an undergraduate I remember a friend joking that he’d just finished an essay on Jonathan Swift, “And after I’d worked through the minor poems, it turns out we shouldn’t have invaded Iraq.  I love it when that’s what comes out in the conclusion.  Means I don’t have to go back and check my working before handing it in.”  I have a lot of sympathy with this approach, but it fails to take the material of the subject seriously.  It treats history as the court on which points can be scored (just as the attitude described above treats it as a patch of ice to skate across.)

There is not enough attention to the difficulties, the eccentricities, the resistances and weirdnesses which reality presents to the explorer.  And in being so concerned with the effect of the conclusion upon the “real world”, this kind of writing isolates itself from ever being challenged or corrected by that world.  Elevating being “right” – pushing in the right ideological direction – over the details of the subject paradoxically has the same effect as insisting that being right or wrong doesn’t matter.  I see more of this in writing beyond the academy, perhaps because it is an effect of caring so much about the public discussion of important topics.

It can, taken to extremes, lead to a basically Manichean approach to thinking, and an equally simplistic way of participating in our shared culture.  There is “Good” and “Evil” (or “The Church” and “The Culture”, or “The Radical” and “The Mainstream” or simply “Us” and “Them”), and since the pressure exerted by the second category is so vast and all-pervasive, any pushing back is validated by exerting itself in the right direction.  This doesn’t mean that we fall into horrific moral violations where “the ends justify the means”, but we may find ourselves short-circuiting our thinking in order to hurry a point in the right direction.  I’m aware of this slide in my own work at times, and of the danger that this may undermine its integrity.

I’ve been focusing on the university because I have more experience of how learning and thinking takes place there than in a newspaper office or a think-tank.  But I think Higton’s discussion of judgement, and its implications, have a lot to say about the way we handle “opinions” in our public discourse.

[1] I delayed this piece until the end of the assessment period at the university where I work in case it sounded like a coded message about how to do well in the modules I teach.  If any of my students are reading this, be assured it isn’t – and nor is it about the assessments I’ve been marking!  These are general reflections based on a number of years’ experience working in universities, and no grade averages were harmed in the making of them.

[2] There’s an obvious, if unexpected, parallel to be drawn with Stephen Colbert’s coining of “truthiness” in opposition to “truth”.