On the first day of class, my English professor told us that our guiding philosophy for the semester should be “Dare to be stupid.” It’s a class about reviewing the performing arts, so this is crucial. We’re being paid for our opinions — we are to imagine — and so we had better express them.
In that class we had a debate recently over a critic who made a huge claim about a film, calling it the absolute best of its genre. I argued that his extensive knowledge and reputation allowed him to make such a sweeping statement, while some of my classmates thought his remark was off-putting. It comes down to this: I know that this critic knows more than I do, so I yield to the weight of his opinion. My classmates wanted to be allowed to decide for themselves.
The issue came up again when we were discussing our own reviews. We have to be opinionated because neutral is the worst thing a review can be, but are we allowed to express ourselves as strongly as the professionals? Without the knowledge base that an expert would have, where do we find rationalization for our gut reactions? And even if we do muster justification — if we manage somehow to explain why our words deserve to be printed — how can we expect that anyone will want to read them?
In addition to this English class, I write art and theater reviews for the News sometimes. Recently, a friend, who was considering starting to do the same, asked me, “But wouldn’t everything I write just be bullshit?”
I got a little defensive. “No,” I argued. “It’s your opinion. You’re not claiming to be an expert.”
The truth is that I agreed with him, as I usually do. I often feel like a fraud expressing my opinions, whether it’s in a review, in section or even in selecting a dining hall. I feel like I don’t know enough to tell potentially more knowledgeable people that a production was fantastic or disastrous, or that Leibniz intended this but not that, or that Trum-brunch really is tastier than all other options. Even if my opinion is somehow valid, given my relative ignorance, who cares to hear it?
At Yale, we are being taught to express ourselves assertively and to be proud of our opinions. We are constantly instructed to participate in section. We are supposed to be learning to speak like the leaders of our fields, because everyone here hopes that someday we will become them. But as for now, we’re just students — and by choosing to matriculate, we’ve admitted that we don’t know everything. In discussion, then, is it okay that we’re not experts? Are we permitted to speak anyway?
I’ve never been one to talk much in class, probably because I am too busy doubting the merit of every thought I have. But other people do not have this problem, and I have to admit that there is something admirable about the section asshole, the confident critic, the friend who has no qualms about expressing her preferences. I have respect (and a little jealousy) for people who don’t hesitate to share their opinions — the people who, as my English professor directed, “Dare to be stupid.” It requires a certain kind of confidence to put your hand up, to open your mouth. Every comment you make implies, “My opinion is worth your time.”
Some people worry too much about this, and others too little. Some students are so silent that the TA never learns their names; others seem to talk more than the professor. These are extremes, but we all struggle to find a balance between them. One day you might try to dominate class conversation. On another you might shrink behind your notebook and hope no one notices you.
In an English class recently, visiting theater critic Tanya Dean offered a middle ground. She said to trust our nïave perspective, to recognize its unique value — that just because your take is different from a professional’s or a professor’s does not mean that it is inherently worse. Our inexperience, she argued, can yield just as helpful and valid an assessment as any amount of education would.
Dean’s comments were about theater reviews, but like most nuggets of artistic wisdom, they’re generalizable. Whatever our opinions are, their merit lies in their originality. To stifle our unique form of ignorance because we are ashamed not to have someone else’s expertise would be counterproductive. All I can offer is what I have. I sell myself short and cheat my readers, my friends and my classmates if I hold it back.