Opinions — Privilege or Skill?

and why Indian schools need to teach it.

During my undergrad in design school in India, I was exposed to an environment that required me to present my work and get feedback and criticism from my teachers. So coming to a design school in the US didn’t seem much of a jump. Except for one aspect: here, even students were expected to critique and give feedback to other students. Somehow, I found myself unprepared to meet this requirement. I was surprised to see myself struggle. Wait, was I not smart enough as others? Although I could see reason and benefit of an expectation like this academically, I slowly realized that having and expressing opinions was a social norm in the U.S. which extended beyond the classroom.

If you grew up in India, you have probably heard your parents say “do not speak unless you are spoken to” or teachers say “just stick to the book” or “just write what I say”. Religion, rituals and values in India put parents and teachers next to God. While I was growing up, it felt like a sin to disagree with an older authority. It still does. When it came to expressing my opinion, I thought of it as an act of arrogance. Who was I to pass a judgement on someone else’s work? The Indian values in me wanted me to remain humble. If my classmate has put in so much effort in completing the assignment, they only need appreciation and encouragement. I would be putting them down with any criticism or feedback.

While I am proud of my Indian values, where I am taught not to disrespect anyone, I soon realized that I have been approaching this wrong. Expressing my opinion showed respect not disrespect. It showed respect for the person I am talking to and for myself. It demonstrated that I cared enough about them to listen, process, and if the situation required, give feedback and critique. It showed that I respected myself enough to regard my opinion worthy of being voiced.

I would attribute some of my discomfort in expressing an opinion to being shy and introverted. But at times, when I managed to express an insightful opinion, I would thank my introverted self. But as my experiences panned out after grad school, having, articulating and expressing opinions seemed like a skill. I realized I cannot leave this up to the fate of my personality or a courageous moment. This skill, like any other, can be taught and learnt. It has a cognitive and a physical process, set of tactics and best practices.

Schools in the US encourage classroom activities like “show and tell” and sometimes have an entire unit dedicated to ‘Opinion Writing’. Jessica, an elementary school teacher, writes a blog about classroom resources. While explaining her lesson on ‘Opinion Writing’ in detail, she writes, “I generally don’t like giving students a quantity when writing, but if I didn’t, they’d write one sentence and say they were done. They don’t understand the concept of having to thoroughly explain their opinion.” Children everywhere have strong preferences, likes and dislikes. The trouble arrives when they are asked for reasons to back the opinion, even a little more than ‘because I like it’ or ‘because it is fun’. And if this process of helping them articulate themselves does not start early enough, their voice of sound reasoning and logic will be underdeveloped. This voice would eventually help them search for answers within themselves and bring self awareness.

Traditionally, Indian children don’t leave their parents’ house when they turn eighteen. The preparation for them to take life decisions on their own is never undertaken by parents or teachers. Family, and sometimes extended family, is involved in important decision making; including deciding a career path, a spouse or even choosing smartphones. The way we are socialized and brought up have deep cultural influences and eventually we can’t label one right and one wrong. Yet having an opinion is a skill, indispensable at the global front.

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Our Opinions Shape Us

When we engage in the process of forming an opinion, we are ideally partaking in the process of critical thinking, which by definition means “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment (opinion)”. The resulting set of judgements shapes our stance and thus our attitude towards the particular topic. And this overtime shapes our ideologies and principles which embeds into our personalities. It is a process that not only helps self-awareness, but also self-shaping.

It is evidently very important how critically we engage in the first step of this entire process. We can never be sure how rational and objective our judgement has been. Being objective implies that we try to keep aside our biases, really question what is ‘normal’ and try to break any conditioning. But at the same time, we will unmistakably listen to our values, our sense of morality, our truth. When we reason our way through this web, we land on an opinion unique to us. It is not right or wrong, it is ours.

It Takes Courage

Since our opinions and beliefs reveal so much about our personalities, it takes a certain amount of courage to let it. And even more courage to be a patron of that belief thereafter. Mediline Levine, a clinician and an author of ‘Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success’, writes for New York Times, “The central task of growing up is to develop a sense of self that is autonomous, confident and generally in accord with reality.” This autonomy and courage is not actively inculcated in schools in India. It is in fact constantly taken away from children through a dictative curriculum, rules that are designed to help teachers handle crowded classrooms, and a society that shuns thoughts outside of tradition. Children are caught up in deciding what stance would be expected of them and what would earn them a pat from the teachers. They, like I was, are afraid to differ from an older authority. It is safe for them to either agree with everyone or not have an opinion at all.

Vulnerable Without It

Not having an opinion can be a dangerous trait in the larger scheme of things. Not trusting ourselves enough to form an opinion makes us vulnerable to dominative figures or popular opinion. We are at the risk of being swayed and easily influenced by another viewpoint. When objectively analyzing, we engage in self dialog and debate. We see as many sides and as much reason as we try to. But if this engagement in thinking is not encouraged in children, we are letting them normalize everything around them instead of challenging it, including wrongful behavior like taking drugs, violence and abuse.

Engage in thinking, not winning

Our experiences evolve and so do our personalities. Evolution shows we allow ourselves to be open to new perspectives and behavior. The flexibility we display in letting ourselves change is as important as standing up for something. When we give more importance to the process of finding what we want to believe in, or when engaging in critical thinking becomes important, we care less about being right and winning arguments. We open ourselves to discourse and welcome additional perspective. Our opinions either get challenged or reinforced but eventually it adds richness to the internal debate.

Internal and External Diversity

We discover that not all our ideologies are cohesive. We are full of contradictions especially while growing up and finding our voice in the world. Acceptance that multiple truths can exist within ourselves, lets us become comfortable with dichotomies. We can prepare children to face this flux, to accept convincing contradictions and assess with honesty. When we allow children to share their opinions without judgement, we raise tolerance, empathy and the need to be more informed.

Change Catalyst

Opinions shape us and our ideologies shape our actions. Meaningful and sound ideologies trigger change. An environment where multiple and diverse perspectives are encouraged to exist and shared can be both humbling and empowering. Both of which are necessary for being a changemaker.

Vidhi Goel