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Judgement and Opinion

August 3, 2001

I begin with a topic that does not relate to the end: Earlier this year, we discussed authority and usefulness in book reviews. Immediately afterwards, I spotted an editorial in Library Journal entitled “Please don’t kill the reviewer.”

This came up in a speech delivered at the National Book Critics Circle awards. Daniel Mendelsohn, New York Magazine book critic, noted that reviewing “isn’t a personal thing between the critic and the author.”

He had received a phone call at his unlisted number from an author who demanded his e-mail address so she could discuss his insufficiently positive review of her book.

I liked his next thought: that this author was unable to distinguish “between personal and professional … to recognize that criticism is a public, not private, activity.”

Mendelsohn went on to blame, in part, the Internet culture and our culture generally for blurring “distinctions … between public and private, between informed judgment and random opinion.” This is good.

Judgment, said Mendelsohn, is “not merely the the ability to log on and opine.”

Of course, we all claim the right to our own opinion, and this surfeit of opinions significantly decreases their value.

We value judgment more. Each of us is also entitled to pass judgment. However, judgment will be held up to brighter light and examined more closely.

Would you prefer to have a matter settled in court by a judge who merely spouts his opinions and decides by whim and fancy rather than standards and facts? We expect judges to apply principles of law. They write down their judgments, which are then held up to further scrutiny.

A challenge for any teacher is to get young students to marshal evidence and defend a proposition. No matter the question at hand, the typical student’s default position is “I’m entitled to my opinion,” as if this opinion and its very existence were unassailable.

Combined with this “valuing” of every opinion, which is essentially to devalue them all, is a popular anti-intellectualism that is embarrassed, or even angered, by efforts to think closely about something and articulate the findings.

But I like Aristotle in this context: “To ask whether or not one should philosophize is already to philosophize.” Once you’re caught thinking at all, you might as well strive to think well.

But, back to students and to encouraging them to speak their minds well. They need encouragement and guidance. I was thinking of the guidance offered in “A student’s guide to liberal learning,” but it could be any of the guides in the series.

It touches on such matters as self-discipline, the personal library, and teachers and teaching. It’s not preachy. It’s short — 50 pages — and inviting. You might argue that for a student to pick this up, he or she must already be inclined to, but then again, many students need just a little help over the threshold.

Others in the series are: “A student’s guide to the core curriculum,” “ … to U.S. history,” “ … literature,” “ … political philosophy,” “ … philosophy,” and “ … economics.” Sometimes, the books have a classical, William-Bennett-style “Book of virtues” slant, but that’s not bad.

I think anyone would enjoy them, if only for the suggested readings. The books are succinct and supportive. If you know a student heading for college, who might be languishing impatiently as the summer winds down, hand her one of these.

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