Friday, September 12, 2008
In one of my classes yesterday we were discussing the "cheating" essays. I tried to generalize about their weakness (a mistake, probably, since whenever we generalize we almost always do so in error). Still, with no time to deal with 30 essays on an individual basis, I felt the need to make at least some general points. And one of these points had to do with insubstantial sentences: in other words, with sentences that, though they may sound perfectly innocent, say nothing, or say things that are entirely obvious—which, for me, amounts to the same thing.
Well, it didn't take long for me to get into trouble. I gave what I thought was a good example of an "obvious" sentence (I won't quote it verbatim, for fear of singling out any student or his/her work), one that read something like, "These days, most people try to accomplish as much as they can." No sooner did I do so than a flurry of hands went up.
"I didn't think it was obvious!"
"Neither did I."
"Really?" I said. "What's not obvious about it?"
"They're just stating their opinion," said one student.
"Yeah," said another. "What's wrong with that."
"Nothing," I said. "If the opinion isn't obvious."
"It's not obvious!"
"Again I ask you—what isn't obvious about it?"
We went back and forth like this for a while. Clearly, the argument would not be settled this way. At last I said, "Maybe the sentence isn't obvious, but it's not exactly gripping, is it?"
"That's just your opinion!" said a student.
Oh, boy, I thought. Here we go. Just my opinion. True, very true. But then if a teacher's opinion doesn't count for more than his or her students', then what's the point of having a teacher? I said, "Yes, it's my opinion. But not all opinions are created equal. Some have more authority than others. Some are based on more experience than others."
"But there's all kinds of books and things being written out there by all kinds of people with all kinds of different opinions," said the same student. "Who's to say that one opinion is better than any other?"
We call this relativism: that notion that all things, including ideas and opinions, are equal or should be treated as such. Hence, Beethhoven's Fifth Symphony is no better than a song by Barry Manilow. And a meal at The Four Season's or Lutece is no better than one from a McDonald's drive-thru window. And a three year-old's crayon scrawl is no less worthy of our admiration and respect than the Sistine Chapel.
But even if we aren't relativists, still, how do we know—how can we be sure—that one opinion is more authoritative than another? Answer: by the skill of the argument[s] used to defend it. This is why, when you (my students) write your papers, I ask you to defend your claims—those that beg defending— with examples, illustrations, statistics, and other kinds of evidence.
Can I prove that the sentence, "These days, most people try to accomplish as much as they can" is a dull, obvious, empty sentence? Can I argue my opinion? I think so. Let's take one part of the sentence at a time. First, "These days"—meaning when, exactly? Today? All right: today. "Most people"—since most is vague we can reduce that to "people." "Try to accomplish." In other words, they "do." "As much as they can"—meaning "what they can." So, distilled, the sentence reads, "Today people do what they can." Since "today" is implied we can reduce that further to, "People do what they can." Note that nothing crucial has been lost from the initial sentence; the information conveyed is identical.
Now is it obvious? Supposing we turn the thought on its head. "Some people don't try to do [as much as] they can." Well, some people don't, I guess. But that is certainly obvious. And if it's obvious that some people don't do as much as they can, must it not therefore be equally obvious that the rest do do as much as they can? I think so.
Were I to make this argument in class, I would be perceived (rightly, I think) as an intellectual bully. After all, one of my main goals in these classes is to get my students to feel comfortable so they'll take part in discussions and ask questions. If I back them into dialectical corners, if I harangue them with arguments, how will that help me achieve my goal?
In exchange for a lively classroom I'll gladly accept a little relativism. Far as I'm concerned, it's a fair trade.
Posted by Peter Selgin at 11:44 AM