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2.4 Disagreeing with the author

It is clear from Kate's responses that from the outset she felt hostile to Layard's article and to Layard himself. As she later explained in a seminar, she felt that he looked down on people with low incomes, such as herself. She felt she was being told that she wasn't happy with her life and that she envied people with lots of possessions. In her philosophy, she said, happiness had nothing to do with wealth. She was just as capable of being happy as the richest people in the country. Because of her hostile feelings she read quickly, writing sarcastic ripostes on to the text.

Reacting to what you read is good; it gets you thinking. It can be very helpful to write ‘dead right’, or ‘rubbish’, or ‘what about the effect of …?’ in the margins of a text. However, Kate did not, in reality, react to Layard's arguments, she reacted to what she expected him to say. Kate was so convinced that Layard knew nothing of what he was writing about, and that his evidence was biased, that she took in very little of what he actually did say.

Yet, on the face of it, her position was not so different from Layard's. They both agree that wealth does not bring happiness and both favour redistribution to the less well-off. Although Kate referred to him as a privileged ‘fat cat’, with nothing useful to say about her world, his expertise is in policies to improve the prospects of unemployed people such as herself. Kate had important points to make about the way research can belittle the lives of ‘ordinary people’, by reducing the richness of their experience to tables of numbers. But the strength of her commitment to this point of view seemed to exclude her from participating in any discussion about the issues Layard raises.

We are, of course, all entitled to our own views. However, if you want to access a body of knowledge, you have to be ready to enter into the ways of thinking in that discipline. To benefit from reading a text you have to be prepared to get alongside the writer and think their thoughts with them. You have to be ready to try out the writer's point of view in order to understand what they are saying. Then you can pause to reflect and react.

Many ideas seem unappealing when you first meet them, but if you only read what you already agree with, you won't learn much. Part of the skill of studying is learning to cope with not feeling happy with what an author is saying, distancing yourself from your hostile feelings, so that you can read on. It isn't easy, because reading is like a conversation with a very talkative person, who leaves no breaks for you to speak. If you disagree with the writer, this can feel very oppressive. However, to participate in academic debate you have to be able to think on all sides of an argument.

Box 4 A detached stance

Logic is supposed to work best when it is not distorted by emotions. When you read academic texts you are supposed to be able to detach your thoughts from your feelings. You are expected to put your personal bias to one side and judge arguments on their soundness. However, you cannot be completely detached, or you wouldn't have a position from which to think about what you read. So first you have to get ‘inside’ the author's point of view, then stand back and compare it with other points of view. You can learn a lot by thinking and arguing from points of view that you don't actually hold.


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