Monday, June 14, 2004

"Passionate & Opinionated" vs. "Fair & Balanced"

I thought this was pretty interesting. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Oppenheimer points out that the most interesting and challenging teachers tend to be those with strong, passionate points of view that are expressed in the classroom:
Disagreement is a prime engine for advancing human knowledge -- and besides, hearing boldly stated opinions is tremendous fun. For smart students to feel challenged, and for dull students to lose their cobwebs, they need to learn that academic subjects are both a matter of grave moral concern and a source of exhilaration, worth becoming overheated about. They learn this not by being invited to care, but by watching professors who manifestly do care. For the college professor, the proper pedagogic role is not as facilitator, coaxing children into thinking, but as role model, showing young men and women what a thinking mind looks like.

My suggestion that professors are too mild, not sufficiently opinionated, may at first sound ludicrous. It is well known that professors take their fields too seriously. They are too inclined to think that second-century Roman coinage is a matter of ultimate concern, too willing to end friendships over what Willa Cather's lesbianism might mean for her depictions of wheat fields. But while professors may get contrary at conferences and in journal articles, those same professors are often profoundly milquetoast in their classrooms, so eager to get in opposing points of view and to assure students that no opinion could be wholly wrong that they forget to have opinions themselves.

Yes, some professors are known for "advancing an agenda," which is thought to be a bad thing. But for the most part, they hold to the well-meaning liberal dogma that students ought to figure things out for themselves. That leads to the kind of teaching that all of us dread and yet engage in: "Very good. I see where you're coming from. Now, does anyone have another point of view?"

I wonder if the same calculus applies to attempts by the news media to be "fair and balanced" (in the real sense, not the Fox sense). By trying to present every point of view equally, are journalists creating gutless prose that fails to inspire meaningful intellectual debate?

No comments: