The Importance of Teaching Controversy

It’s hard to teach students about controversial subjects for many reasons. For one, there’s the risk of getting complaints from parents or winding up in the newspaper just for mentioning some topics in certain schools, no matter how well you actually handle it. There’s a real possibility that some students are not yet mature enough to engage with some topics effectively. They might also very passionate about something and disagree vehemently with their classmates, which is hard for a teacher to moderate. The teacher also has to be keenly aware of how their opinion on an issue affects how they put it forward to their students and whether they’re being fair, or trying to influence their students to agree with greater or lesser degrees of subtlety.

Regardless of all this, life is full of challenges and this is just one of them. It’s important to meet these challenges in order to grow as people. It’s best to have students who have thought about their opinions and others in depth for a long time. It’s not ideal, but it’s also better to have students who have at least heard more than one side to a controversial issue instead of never thinking about it at all. High school students are close to or at the age where they can vote. It would be a disservice to the rest of the national and local communities to burden them with unthinking voters, and it would be a disservice to the students to not teach them the skills necessary to really think about a controversial issue.

There is not only a possibility but a likelihood that a classroom discussion of certain controversial issues will bring out comments widely seen as distasteful. It’s up to teacher discretion based on the severity of what is said to decide whether to engage with what they’ve said and try to get them to see another side or reconsider, or just outright halt the discussion and tell them off for saying that.

A similar problem for teachers is teaching about past injustices and atrocities. It’s important to teach students why and how these things happened and what was the belief system that led to them, but not to make it seem like such ideas have equal merit to other systems. Nobody does something for no reason, even if their reason is severely logically and/or morally flawed.

Even if it’s tricky and difficult at the time, it will be beneficial for both teachers and students to have these discussions. It will make them better able to live and participate in and analyze our society.