Our private lives and personal beliefs follow us everywhere we go. This includes the classroom. Students and teachers do not check their biases, preferences or opinions at the door; but too often such aspects of character are absent from our classrooms and our education.
All too often students are hesitant to disagree or offer a different or opposing viewpoint. Hesitant out of fear of rejection, most definitely, but also out of a fear of dissent. We live in a society uncomfortable with dissent. There exists a pervasive attitude that the world would be a better place if only everyone would agree and just get along. Many children are raised on the mantra, ""If you don't have anything nice to say, then don't say anything at all.""
Not included in the category of ""anything nice to say"" would be any comment that could possibly stir controversy or incite objection. I have lost track of the number of times that classroom discussion has centered around agreement. This suffocating environment of harmony oftentimes goes unnoticed until someone disagrees. Because when someone disagrees in a classroom setting, all of a sudden, hands are fidgeting and eyes are glancing at the clock or at the ceiling (no one wants to acknowledge that the disagreement even exists).
It's truly amazing. Many courses at the university offer and require discussion sections to further a students learning via DISCUSSION. A bunch of students sitting around in agreement, however, can hardly be described as educational or productive. Yet, semester after semester the pattern of conformity is undeniable. It makes one wonder: Do we all have the same opinions? And if so, do we all hold the best/most informed/most nuanced/most constructive opinions?
My hunch is a resounding ""No.""
Furthermore, the lack of dissent and shortage of opinions in our classrooms is dangerous. A lack of conflicting or contradictory ideas is more dangerous than any hypothetical utopian harmony of accord. It's when a singular idea is held, unchallenged and without question, by the masses that dictators take over and genocides occur.
The dictator genocide example is dramatic and probably not very applicable in a university setting, but the principle is the same: a lack of diversity of opinions and ideas is harmful. Democracy depends on dissent, as Amy Goodman, independent journalist and host of ""Democracy Now!"" wrote, ""The bulwark against tyranny is dissent. Open opposition, the right to challenge those in power, is a mainstay of any healthy democracy.""
The university, instructors and students need to work together to improve classroom discussions. And this entails fostering dissent. A diversity of ideas and opinions needs to be encouraged. Individuals should not feel uncomfortable voicing an opposing or alternative sentiment.
In order to achieve this, though, it will be crucial that we are comfortable hearing and speaking about a diversity of opinions. We need to accept criticism. Instructors need to be able to tell students they are wrong when the situation warrants it, and students need to accept the instructor's authority to do so, regardless of whether or not they accept the instructor's judgment. Instructors need to stop coddling students by congratulating their efforts in lieu of telling them they are just plain wrong. Students must be able to participate in a discussion without feeling uncomfortable about the sometimes heated debates that occur as a result of constructive and educational idea-sharing.
Not only do democracy and education require dissent, but life itself is a lot more enjoyable when it is filled with enthusiastic idea-sharing. Do not let popular mythology about handholding and rainbows lead you to believe that the world would be a better place if we all agreed. The world would suck if we all had the same opinions. The world is a lot better off when we disagree, and life is a lot more interesting when we talk about those disagreements.
Kathy Dittrich is a senior majoring in English and French. Please send all feedback to email@example.com.