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the fact-opinion continuum
tales out of school
by robert castle

Rule #3: Post no opinions.

Brittany responds immediately to any reference to a current event, person, celebrity, movie, or television show.

“I didn’t like that” or “I don’t like him” or “The best I ever I saw.”

“But Brittany, I was only mentioning it to illustrate the lesson. I don’t care what you think about it.”

“I know. I was telling you what I thought.”

“I don’t want your opinion," I say. "It is irrelevant to what we are doing.”

Ten minutes later, the next day, the next week, the same walk through the treadmill. She cannot stop herself. She knows I have contempt for student opinions. She is unpopular with many of her classmates. But these do not overcome two delusional elements of hers.

She believes anything said in class counts for class participation. In that she has nothing to say about any lessons in class because she is never prepared, she makes up for this by expressing opinions. I would like to tell her that I have never counted class participation as part of the grade because I often refer to it in notes to parents as if it were greatly important. In a sense, class participation is something I use to cloud the parents’ eyes when they gaze at the idea of my classroom. They are meant to encourage student participation and believe they are part of a process of all of us working together. Thus, my endeavor to manage the idea of my class in the parent mind doubles back in the form of a minor pestilence.

Brittany’s second delusion stems from the sheer self-importance her opinions hold for her. No matter how I respond, there is small chance I can lesson or demean the value of her golden thoughts. It might not be so pathetic, so uncomfortably narcissistic, had she an ounce of good taste and judgment. Teenage tastes cannot be sweetened in the manner that teenagers constantly freshen their breath by chewing gum. Their experiences remain undigested primarily and come up through their mental throat as odoriferous belches that cause one to swiftly turn away.

Elsewhere, I suffer the opinion glut. Other teachers converge on me at lunch to get an opinion about a current event. A contested election. A controversial movie. The President’s Educational Policy. I give them opaque comments. Perhaps, unconsciously, I am punishing my colleagues for expecting something from me that I am loathe to impart. Should I sense what they want me to say, to back up their general feelings, I will argue against anything they want to hear. I have found myself uncomfortably (from my conscience’s perspective) defending Republican Party policy, Pope John Paul II, and even our principal.

Social Studies as a high school subject is too vulnerable to opinions. The historical material can be volatile and events resolve with difficult turns. Historians struggle understanding what has happened. What can we expect from the teenager taking the course?

Worse, not distinguishing fact from opinion is de facto in the young mind. What is asserted in books and articles can only be taken in the direction of fact. In return, what they believe has happened is also fact. They have more trouble, as does our society now, distinguishing what cheating is. They might not even care how the answer is gotten as long as they get it right. Hence, they care about getting “right answers” and remain oblivious to the broader implications of the context from which the right answer was derived. There's our future corporate America.

Adults are not much better. Parents want the accumulation of the right answers given by their children to metamorphose into the fact of a “grade.” High school administrations use the grades as proof of the good job the schools are doing – or, in the other direction, the fact of bad grades indicts a school for its poor performance. Universities are left with trying to unravel the separate facts about prospective students’ high school performances. Seldom, sometimes not even in writing college recommendations, can the teachers deliver judgments about a student’s real capabilities. I imagine the day I will write Brittany’s recommendation and, looking for something to say, will evoke her ability to lead a class discussion.


I have had three books published: A Sardine on Vacation, fiction; The End of Travel, creative nonfiction; and Odd Pursuits, a collection of stories. I teach U.S. History and Film at a small academy outside Trenton, NJ.

more about robert castle


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tales out of school
by robert castle
topic: humor
published: 12.30.99

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tales out of school
by robert castle
topic: humor
published: 12.30.99


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