I strongly disagree with Justin McBrayer, who writes in the New York Times that organizations like mine – the Bay State Reading Institute – should stop teaching young children (we do it in first grade) the difference between fact and opinion. We would say that “Murder is wrong” is an opinion; he worries that in doing so we are not teaching children what he calls moral “facts”.
I agree that murder is abhorrent, and I think we should teach children that this is one of the basic values of our society. But that doesn’t make it a fact.
One problem with McBrayer’s approach is that he is not addressing a huge problem in our democracy – a problem best summarized by Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he said that every person is entitled to his own opinion, but not her own facts! We are (alas) in a world of evidence-free politics. Many of our political leaders debate issues like global warming as if a majority vote of the House of Representatives could decide that there is no global warming or, if it exists, it is not caused by man! My Dad had a nice example to explain this – he liked to say that the law of gravity was one law that no legislature could repeal.
More examples? Some congresswomen wanted a vote to assert that abortion causes breast cancer. The governor of Kansas was convinced that drastically reduced taxes would cause faster economic growth and no loss of government revenue.
If our legislators cannot recognize facts; if they believe things are so because their ideology or religion or prejudice asserts their existence, we will not be able to solve our national problems. It is therefore critically important that we teach our young people to understand the difference between facts and opinions!
I see no reason whatever that doing so would prevent us from teaching children the moral values on which our country is based – that murder is wrong, that all people are entitled to equal treatment before the law, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, or gender.
There’s another problem with his approach – how would he define moral “facts”? Is it anything a religious cleric says? Would he accept the view of ISIS clerics that Shiite Muslims are heretics and it’s OK to kill them? Ayatollah Khamenei’s view that Iran should wipe Israel from the face of the earth? The view of Saudi clerics that women are essentially the property of their husbands and are not allowed to drive cars? The view of ultra-orthodox Rabbis that all of Palestine, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, belongs to the Jews?
As these examples make clear, moral “facts” are relative – that is, there is no universal agreement about what is right and what is wrong.
There is an issue with fact vs. opinion worth discussing. Take this example: “man evolved from primates and other early life forms” – the theory of evolution. Most of us would say it’s a fact, but some would say it’s an opinion. I’d say it’s a theory – a hypothesis – backed by a lot of evidence. I’m an economist; here’s another example: “When unemployment is high, fiscal austerity leads to higher unemployment and slow economic growth.” Again, it’s a theory with a lot of evidence (the 1937 recession in the U.S.; the fact that the U.S., with the Obama stimulus in 2009, is doing better than Europe, which is practicing austerity).
Perhaps we should continue with “fact vs. opinion” in 1st grade, and then come back a few years later to explain that there are simple facts (the deserts are dry) and then there are theories with a lot of evidence. But this subtlety really has nothing to do with McBrayer’s argument about moral “facts.”
So, Professor McBrayer, by all means urge us to teach our children that murder is abhorrent and that, as Jefferson told us, “All men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights”. But don’t try to pretend that these are facts. And certainly don’t let the know-nothings of American politics ruin our democracy by preventing us from teaching our children the difference between fact and opinion!