Society problems

The Challenges of Teaching Controversial Topics in a Divided Society

Two landmark Supreme Court decisions raise questions that I have spent a lot of time pondering:

  • Is it possible to teach some controversies without instructors imposing their personal and political views or creating an atmosphere that many students find hostile or derisory?
  • Are there questions so heavy, so deeply personal, that it would be wrong to treat them from a purely academic point of view?
  • Is our standard academic approach to current affairs—historicize, contextualize, abstract, theorize, and intellectualize—appropriate given the seriousness of the stakes in these cases?

In general, I think it is a mistake for the humanities or social sciences to avoid difficult and topical subjects. Indeed, I believe it is the inability of the humanities to demonstrate their relevance in the face of “the ferocious urgency of the present” that helps explain their increasingly marginal status within academia and culture. in general.

Wouldn’t it be a gross breach of our academic and professional responsibility to avoid topics that would benefit from precisely the kind of context and insights the academy is meant to provide?

Shouldn’t humanists and social scientists strive to elevate public conversations about key controversies and provide students with the essential language, frameworks, resources, and tools to understand the greatest conflicts? of our time so that they can formulate and articulate their own perspectives?

Yet even I must ask whether the issues raised by Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization and West Virginia v. EPA are so tied to people’s personal and political identity and are so controversial, passionate, confrontational and personally sensitive that it would be a mistake to bring these topics into the college classroom.

Wouldn’t that risk alienating students of all political persuasions – and even worse, inflicting harm on those individual students who have made incredibly heartbreaking decisions in their personal lives?

The Tory majority in the High Court may have treated the cases simply as a matter of jurisdiction or procedure to determine which government body should make decisions on abortion or whether a regulatory body overstepped its authority in issuing regulations . But for much of the public, what was at stake in these cases was among the biggest issues of our time.

In the Dobbs case, the issues include these:

  • Is the right to abortion essential to women’s autonomy and self-determination or is abortion an issue that states should have the right to prohibit in all circumstances?
  • Are there any ancient rights, rooted in half a century of precedent, that the court should not alter lest that decision raise doubts about a range of rights (for example, the right to contraception or same-sex marriage) that large swaths of the public matter?

Regarding West Virginia v. EPA (and the January 2022 court decision in NFIB v. OSHA, involving vaccine and testing mandates), the issues in dispute are as follows:

  • In a deeply divided democracy, which unit of government should make critical decisions to protect the environment or public health and safety?
  • Isn’t it totally unrealistic and misguided to expect Congress to micromanage technical decisions made by agency experts?

As the public rightly senses, the issues in the Dobbs and West Virginia cases are both specific legal disputes and much broader moral and political issues, including:

  • The fate of the court-led rights revolution that began under Chief Justice Earl Warren.
  • The future of the administrative and regulatory state, which initially emerged during the Progressive Era and matured during the New Deal and the Great Society.

So where am I going? What advice can I offer on teaching the hottest topics in a polarized and ideologically divided society?

  1. Recognize that a trigger warning is not enough. Be completely transparent about what you will be covering in class so that students have the option of taking another course.
  2. Don’t just treat the controversy as a legal or political issue. Be sure to include human stories. When it comes to abortion, I highly recommend Caitlin Flanagan’s searing and heartbreaking “The Dishonesty of the Abortion Debate.”
  3. Be clear about what you will and will not do in class. Your job is to deepen students’ understanding of complex and controversial issues. You need to be empathetic and supportive, but also very aware of your role. If you plan to historicize and contextualize the controversy, say so. If you are going to present alternative conceptual, moral or interpretative frameworks, say so.
  4. Make intensive use of primary sources. On abortion, you might consider a free downloadable collection of materials titled Before Roecompiled and edited by Linda Greenhouse and Reva Segal and published by Yale Law School.
  5. Be prepared for tough or difficult times. These can include shocking or alarming personal revelations, outbursts of anger and tears. Plan ahead how best to handle these times. I invite you to seek advice at the advice center on your campus.
  6. Create opportunities outside of the classroom for students to speak freely and express their emotions. The environment should be strongly supportive and may include representatives from appropriate campus support services.

What about specific strategies for dealing with hot topics? Consider the following steps:

  1. Co-create classroom norms and ground rules. With your students, try to forge common standards:
  • Listen to your classmates without interrupting them.
  • Do not customize the arguments; criticize each other’s ideas.
  • Avoid inflammatory language and personal insults.
  • Respect each other.
  1. Clarify your role. Explain your own role: whether you are emcee, referee or referee, information resource or devil’s advocate.
  2. Divide a problem into components. Break down a difficult question into specific areas of contention and disagreement.
  3. Consider dividing the class into small groups. In a more intimate setting, students may be more inclined to ask questions, share information and express their own opinions.
  4. Allow students to remain silent. Don’t put the students on the spot. There is nothing wrong with allowing students to observe class discussion and, in doing so, develop their own point of view.
  5. Elevate the conversation. One of our most important roles as instructors is to help our students move beyond mere opinion and develop reasoned, evidence-based, logical, and theoretically informed arguments. To that end, be the facilitator you should be. Provide your students, directly or through classroom readings, with essential historical context and contemporary context and familiarize them with contrasting perspectives and relevant knowledge.
  6. Channel the conversation in a positive direction. Your goal is not to eliminate disagreements about values, but rather to help students understand the complexities of an issue, understand the perspective of their critics, and present their argument as convincingly and convincing as possible.

We sometimes see politics as a difficult process of reaching consensus. But there is an opposing view – called agonism – which I believe deserves far more recognition and respect from those outside of political science than it usually receives.

Derived from the ancient Greek word agon, which referred to various kinds of contests and competitions held at public festivals, involving athletics, drama, music, poetry, or painting, agonism views conflict over core values ​​as an essential feature of politics. To deny this basic fact, advocates of agonism argue, is a grave mistake. A critique of the concept of political pluralism leading to consensus, agonism is associated with the German jurist Carl Schmitt and, in very different forms, with the American and Belgian political theorists William E. Connolly and Chantal Mouffe. According to Mouffe, the opposite of conflict is not consensus, it is hegemony, because one party in a debate dominates its adversaries.

The struggle over core values ​​has certainly been a defining feature of American political history, which I think is best understood as an ongoing moral civil war over what to believe and what to fight for. The issues varied, whether the dividing line was slavery, evolution, immigration, race, gender, women’s rights, civil liberties, foreign policy, the proper role of government, or any other subject of public debate. But conflicts of values, more than regions and socio-economic classes or demographic variables, remain the fundamental divisions of this society.

Our goal as instructors is not to produce artificial consensus and certainly not to bully, intimidate, or harass students into accepting our personal point of view. The best we can do is to help students reflect on their opinions, clarify and critique their own thinking and that of others, and make their case with precision, logic and evidence.

These are plausible goals. What is not reasonable to expect is to reach a consensus on values ​​where none exists. So embrace your inner John Stuart Mill and understand that the only consensus possible in our classrooms is agreement over disagreement.

Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.