For some time I’ve noticed a perplexing quality of college student word use.  Here are a couple of examples:

“I have to miss class tomorrow and I was wondering if I could get the information that you’re going to cover.”

“I want the professor just to give me the information without his/her opinion so that I can make up my own mind.”

I hear some version of these remarks fairly frequently and they alarm me.  In the second one, I can see the student’s concern for not being force-fed ideology and I’ll give that one to him.  It’s a legitimate concern, but in a broader sense reflective of a fundamental misunderstanding of what should happen in a college (it was a political science) class.  Secondly, referring to course content as “information” sounds utterly lifeless and sterile, having no more than instrumental value, available only to be manipulated for some pragmatic aim.

(Disclaimer: I believe in the importance of facts and information.  I am not a rank subjectivist.  In fact, I hold an “externalist” view of truth – that it is really “out there” and available.  With that qualification, back to my point.)

How did we get here?  Well, clearly, the “information age” of personal computers and the worldwide web has helped dramatically.  I love the technology, but if we don’t pay attention to the paradigmatic control these computer metaphors are working on us, I can hardly imagine how impoverished, even perverse, our lives will become.

The other culprit is hiding in fifth or sixth grade classrooms, where students are indoctrinated with the fact/opinion distinction.  Certainly, there is a difference between facts and opinions and I applaud the intention, but I’m worried about the misleading implications.  A “fact” is evidently something beyond need of interpretation because it is “neutral.”  We trust facts.  “Opinions,” by contrast, are squishy and subjective and, most damming, idiosyncratic.  How many times have you heard, “That’s just your opinion,” as if the mere fact (yes, I meant that word) makes the whole thing dismissible?

It’s a short step from “fact” to “information,” Same feeling, same attitude, same problem.  First, it seems to assume that people are neutral information processors, a self-evidently absurd notion when one pauses to think about it (but who’s pausing?).  Likewise with facts.  Facts have to be applied and application requires interpretation.  We have to figure out what the facts mean. They tell us nothing in and of themselves.  Do students understand how important this step – from facts to meaning – is?

In this context, campus ministers have a crucial role to play.  The world needs wise, well-formed disciples of Jesus.  Wisdom requires thoughtfulness, the habit of taking into consideration a range of opinions, weighing evidence judiciously; most of all, it means applying truth lovingly, with the heart of Jesus.  In other words, to think well requires a well-formed character, which involves far more than “getting information.”  “Just getting the information” simply won’t cut it.

Campus ministers: we’re supposed to be about developing well-formed followers of Jesus.  We may not assign grades, but we’re still educators in the best sense of that word.  Precisely because we are not giving exams and assigning grades, we have the luxury of helping students learn, untrammeled by the pressures of academic demands.  Let us not squander this sacred opportunity.

The Troubling Use of “Information”

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