“Stop Disagreeing With Me!”: A Conversation on the Nature of Learning

I love conversation, especially passionate, informed conversation. Conversations are a place where two or more people exchange and develop ideas, whether these are spoken, written, or delivered some other way. Of course, people are going to have different takes on the same information, but in the ideal, these differences blend naturally and easily in conversation.

This said, for some time now and especially lately I have heard people saying, “I agree” and “I disagree” all the time. I do it too. But such statements pose problems. When I grade essays that only say, “I agree” or “I disagree,” I write in the margin, “Why?” or “Example?” Such explanations allow conversation to happen and allow all parties to further grapple with issues. This also works as an important scaffolding technique, whereby both parties have “more knowledge” than they would have had independently per se – both say/write things that cue further ideas/memories in others. 

Additionally, I am regularly asked if I agree or disagree with so-and-so. Unless it has to do with things in my research and teaching interests, my answer is usually, “I don’t know.” I answer such because I will not talk about something or give an opinion about something if I really do not know or understand about it. People, including readers here :), frequently disagree with my analysis of culture or they disagree that something is an example of the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy without really knowing what the IWSCP is. “Disagreements” and conversations are what academia is all about, yes, but if you “disagree” with something, you should know exactly what you are disagreeing with and have specific knowledge to back you up. One semi-negative aspect of the Internet is that “everyone” is “an expert” in History, biology, neurosurgery, botany, etc. 

So despite the hopefully eye-catching title here, I deliberately provoke and encourage conversation. But instead of agreeing or disagreeing, let’s talk about why and always ask lots of questions. If we don’t have specific knowledge about something, instead of agreeing or disagreeing, let’s say “I don’t know,” try to understand the point-of-view at hand, and/or add some to our to-read list. While I am all about dismantling notions of “experts” as “the authority,” there is a time and place to recognize that some people have more knowledge. For instance, if my doctor says I need such-and-such surgery, I have it. I do not have the knowledge to agree or disagree. 

As the Liberal Arts teach, however, the ultimate answer to anything is “it depends” or “it’s more complicated than that.” The more we know, the less we know.