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The “Problem of Opinion”

Posted by Mary Chaktsiris
15 October 2012 - 8:34am

We know students enter classrooms with historical baggage. 

People pick up information about the past in a variety of contexts and through a variety of media. The past is talked about in the home through shared family experiences and stories. The History Channel churns out hours of programming covering everything from ancient volcano eruptions to modern-day warfare. Large volumes of books, magazines, and newspaper articles talk about and reference past events in current contexts. Students don’t check their previous knowledge of the past at the door. They bring into the classroom with them, and it influences their writings and their participation in discussions. 

Yet historical baggage, or that accumulation of what people “know” about the past, isn’t always necessarily accurate.

Diverse opinions spring from different perspectives.  In a sense, all of our classrooms are already diverse based on the different experiences and knowledges of the people who sit in them. Yet, there are substantial differences between argument, based on evidence, and opinion, based on feelings or an untethered sense of ‘knowing’ separated from any distinct evidentiary base.

Based on the assignments I’ve graded and discussed, students' efforts to diversify history often results in the creation of archetypal stereotypes. These stereotypes are often based on a flat analysis of secondary sources scaffolded over pre-existing and sometimes problematic opinions. Sometimes opinions can be wrong. By wrong I mean that they are not supported by evidence in the readings or other credible sources. Instead of approaching sources and readings with an open mind, students often ‘fit’ this information into pre-existing ideas about a past that is largely imagined.  In short, I find many students do not understand that their own opinion in and of itself is not an argument. 

In my experience as both a Teaching Fellow and a Teaching Assistant at the university level, “the problem of opinion” can often be instigated by attempts to diversify an overarching narrative of Canadian History that is seen largely as Eurocentric, white, masculine, and heterosexual. Women, Aboriginals, Blacks, Francophones and other identified marginalized groups are integrated into the curriculum as mere add-ons or boxes to be ticked off. Sometimes through efforts to diversify, the narrative becomes just as static as the overarching narrative itself. 

Ultimately, what exactly do we mean by “Diversity in the Classroom”? Doesn’t "diversity" often just become an amended overarching narrative with sidebars, clauses, and specific units on “others” in Canadians pasts? By integrating diverse perspectives into an overarching narrative that often isn’t quite equipped to integrate them, are we not continuing to marginalize or “other” histories, communities, and groups?