How to Have an Opinion
Professor Lyons possessed the sort of casual self-importance which only former consulting attorneys and underpaid professors are capable of. He had elbow patches on his jacket. His favorite movie was The Big Lebowski. Every day, he carried a leather messenger bag stuffed with graded papers, syllabi, that day’s reading, and several cans of green La Croix, which he drank periodically throughout the class while one or another “that kid” spouted their opinion — as if the Wisconsonian sparkling water lent him willpower to listen.
The students in my section were ill-prepared for the likes of Prof. Lyons. We had just spent the Winter quarter under the tutelage of an easygoing Indian man who brought coffee and donuts to class and seldom bothered with who had actually done the reading. Naturally, we loved him. Although no one ever intended to skip a single sentence of Rousseau, very often Analysis midterms or modul UN prep had higher priority in terms of long-term importance. By about seventh week, however, almost everyone had gotten used to the kind man’s leniency, and an awkward silence stretched for thirty seconds or more after he asked, “What is the Third Estate?” to no avail.
The kind man almost always answered his own questions, a fact which everyone knew but that didn’t stop us from squirming uncomfortably while he waited for someone to volunteer a response. He never called on someone, perhaps afraid of embarrassing them. At the time, I was grateful. Afterward, though, I wondered whether the man did us a disservice. His teaching was unobtrusive — on our minds as well as our priorities — and so we learned comparatively little.
Not so, with David P. Lyons.
On the first day of class, Prof. Lyons informed us that he believed in fairness, and since propriety dictated that he go by his title, we should go by ours. In his class, I would be “Mr. Killeen,” not merely “Benjamin.” Similarly, I came to know my classmates almost exclusively as “Mr. Tyler” or “Ms. Bell,” et cetera, requiring the slightly awkward exchange of given names on the instances we met each other outside class.
Prof. Lyons’ syllabus let us know what kind of class he intended to teach. Unlike his predecessor, he intended to call on someone if the conversation lulled. He might ask about the importance of associations in Tocqueville or what Nietzsche meant by master versus slave morality. If the answer failed to impress, he reserved the right to ask any one of us to step outside and not return until we had done the reading. He never exercised this right to its fullest extent — actually tossing someone out — but the fear of such humiliation motivated us to prioritize his assigned readings as much as any midterm.
However, I do remember one occasion where he came very close. “Mr. Daniels,” he said, at the beginning of class. “What does Marx mean by relative surplus value?”
The poor student grasped at straws while Lyons prompted his slipshod memory, all the while claiming that he couldn’t remember because he had read the passage so late at night. Maybe he was telling the truth, or maybe he never touched the reading. Either way, he failed to impress. Gradually, a deep sense of dread settled over his empathetic comrades, some of us too well aware that on another morning we might have been just as unlucky. Helpless, we waited for the moment when David Lyons would exercise his right.
Finally, Prof. Lyons had had enough. “Mr. Daniels,” he said. “I’m going to ask you this, and I trust you’ll answer honestly.” He paused.
Mr. Daniels nodded for him to continue.
“Did you do the reading?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Daniels, but his tone of voice sounded unsure, as if he asked “Yes?” rather than asserted it.
The professor took no notice. “All right then,” he said, and he opened the question to the room.
It must be understood that Prof. Lyons viewed his syllabus not so much as a guide for students to do well in his class but rather as a social contract, which all of us agreed to by staying in the course. I should mention that not everyone did stay. The girl in Model UN dropped David Lyons on day one, but he didn’t seem to mind.
Later in the quarter, I happened to run into her. “I wasn’t down for that,” she told me, when I asked about the class. “Just, no.”
On its own, a harsh syllabus perhaps means very little, since so many professors treat the document as more aspirational guidelines than actual rules. More Declaration of Independence, as it were, than Constitutional Amendment 27. The difference was that Prof. Lyons enforced his syllabus. Or rather, he readily reminded us of the particulars we agreed to, on the occasions we forgot.
I remember one instance in particular. Ms. Bell had begun the discussion by disagreeing strongly with Marx’s definition of value, namely that an object’s value depends solely on the labor that goes into its production. Prof. Lyons didn’t want to debate the issue. After several attempts to redirect the conversation, he reached into his messenger bag, withdrew a copy of the syllabus, and got up from his chair. Ms. Bell kept speaking. Lyons marched around the table to her seat, which was just next to mine, and laid the syllabus in front of her.
He pointed to a specific paragraph. “Read that,” he said, interrupting her in mid-sentence, “and if, after reading it, you still feel that your question merits time in my class, I will be happy to address it.”
I could see the paragraph he pointed to. I couldn’t help but read it alongside Ms. Bell, while Prof. Lyons returned to his seat. It read:
All of the texts we will read this quarter come from times very different from the present. As a result, the authors of these texts will make at least some claims with which you will no doubt disagree. When that happens, keep in mind that all the texts we will read this quarter contain some of the most important thoughts the human race has ever produced. Consequently, when disagreements between an author and you arise, try to understand (1) why an author has made the claim with which you disagree, (2) the broader purpose or purposes the author might be seeking to accomplish by making that claim, (3) what is at stake in both that claim and your disagreement with it, and (4) the weaknesses and limits of your own position. The more honest you are with yourself on this last point, the greater the benefit you will derive from our readings.
After reading this paragraph, Ms. Bell fell silent. At length, the conversation moved on, and when she spoke again, after some time, she did not raise the same complaint.
Over the quarter, I got the sense that Prof. Lyons cared more deeply about imparting some sense of truth on his students than about the particular content he was teaching. I do not mean “truths,” such as those particular truths that Marx or Tocqueville put forth, but “truth” as a concept in of itself: the idea that some positions are inherently correct, others are wrong, and still others can be argued. Recognizing these categories is difficult. Yet Lyons clearly considered it a much more crucial skill than explaining anything John Stuart Mill had to say in On Liberty. Often, he quoted the line from his favorite movie, “That’s just your opinion, man,” sometimes ironically, often directed toward himself, and now and then as a gentle reminder that one or all of us might simply be wrong.
Of course, David Lyons himself had some very strong opinions. In “Guidelines for Written Work,” a separate document which he distributed alongside the syllabus, Prof. Lyons listed several “contemporary barbarisms” of modern writing. These included the word “impact” used for anything other than physical objects literally striking one another, and “proactive”, which made one sound like a management consultant trying to fit more syllables into every word. Plain, honest “active” worked just as well. Lyons also disliked words like “incentivize” and “problematize,” which, according to him, “add nothing to the English language” and “instead tend to rob the language of other useful words and reduce the tools we have available for thinking about the world.” To break such bad habits, Prof. Lyons removed one third of a letter grade for every instance of these barbarisms.
I imagine Prof. Lyons would object to my characterizing his positions on writing as mere opinion. Indeed, I believe that following the “Guidelines” made me a better writer. Yet the distinction between these particular opinions and “just your opinion, man” illustrates the kind of truth that Prof. Lyons cared so deeply about. Over the objections of his students, many of whom felt that “impact” worked just fine as a synonym for “affect,” he imposed the guidelines because he could support them. He pointed to the appendix of George Orwell’s essay, “ The Principles of Newspeak” as the basis for his guidelines, an elegant and enjoyable piece of persuasive writing which Orwell included in the appendix to 1984. Along with Prof. Lyons, I highly recommend it.
A different section of the Guidelines perhaps servers as a summary of David Lyons’s philosophy on truth. At least, it speaks of the truth insofar as it can be argued. He advises any would-be writer:
Avoid unfounded assertions. Occasionally students will simply claim that the world in which we live, especially human life, is a certain way and then proceed to write a paper as though that assumption were true. One problem with this approach is that most really interesting claims about human life can be contested. Accordingly, when you feel tempted to write a statement like “all human beings yearn for [insert nebulous value here],” ask yourself at least three questions. First, how do I know such a claim is true? Second, might there be evidence that runs counter to my claim? Third … what do I mean by [nebulous value]? You might then find yourself highlighting the text in question and hitting “delete.” There is no shame in that.
Prof. Lyons reviled weak opinions. This is not to say he never had any, I should think, but rather that he worked hard to strengthen or remove them. He constructed his positions out of more atomic truths, such as what Hume actually wrote, and sought out others’ arguments to test against his own. Thus, one could hardly say to David Lyons, “Yeah, well, that’s just your opinion, man,” because it was seldom just his and never just an opinion.
On the other hand, David Lyons readily admitted when multiple arguments made sense, even if he preferred one above the rest. On the last day of class, the assigned reading consisted of neither Marx nor Nietszhe, nor even Hannah Arendt. Instead, we discussed the graphic novel Watchmen, by Alan Moore.
“So,” Prof. Lyons began. “Who is the hero of Watchmen?”
This was the essay prompt on Watchmen. It was deceptively open-ended, with any number of possible answers. Should one choose Dr. Manhattan, the blue man with god-like power to manipulate matter? What about Ozymandius, who undoubtedly saved the most lives but sacrificed millions in the process? Should a hero believe in right and wrong? If so, then the black-and-white Rorshach stands alone by sticking to his principles.
Ultimately, the choice depended on one’s definition of “hero,” but that didn’t mean that every choice was reasonable. We would be graded on the soundness of our argument. Thus, Prof. Lyons urged us not to argue on behalf of Edward Blake, the amoral vigilante with little regard for human life, whose grisly murder paints the opening pages of Watchmen red. Edward Blake was not the hero, plain and simple. Any opinion that argued as much would likely fall short of the high standard by which David Lyons estimated truth. That is to say: reasoning.
Opinions based on such a firm foundation are not so easily dismissed as the dude’s oft-repeated abnegation would like to assert. The choice of Watchmen ‘s hero was definitely up for debate, as most matters of opinion are, but that didn’t make every position debatable. No one claimed the comedian as their hero. Moreover, no one felt so strongly about their own position that they were unwilling to adopt someone else’s definition of “hero,” in order to understand their argument. Thus, we reached a closer approximation of truth, on that hot Tuesday morning in May, while David Lyons listened thoughtfully, all the while drinking his La Croix.
David Lyons, for his part, thought the hero of Watchmen was Bernard, the ordinary man who sold newspapers on a street corner in New York. He told us at the end of class, not particularly bothered that no one shared his opinion.
“Have a good summer,” he added. “Keep in touch.”
The names of the students mentioned have been altered to respect their privacy.
Originally published at https://benjamindkilleen.com on November 10, 2020.