Title

The Challenges of Teaching Controversial Topics in a Divided Society

Strategies to use when teaching today’s most difficult, divisive and sensitive issues.

July 25, 2022

Two momentous Supreme Court decisions raise questions that I have spent a great deal of time pondering:

  • Is it possible to teach certain controversies without instructors imposing their own personal and political views or creating an atmosphere that many students find hostile or derisory?
  • Are there issues so fraught, so profoundly personal, that it would be a mistake to treat from a wholly academic perspective?
  • Is our standard academic approach to hot topics—to historicize, contextualize, abstract, theorize and intellectualize—appropriate given the gravity of the issues at stake in these cases?

In general, I believe it is a mistake for the humanities or the social sciences to avoid difficult and timely topics. Indeed, I take the view that it’s the humanities’ failure to demonstrate its relevance to “the fierce urgency of now” that helps explain its increasingly marginal status within the academy and the culture at large.

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

Shouldn’t humanists and social scientists strive to elevate public conversations on key controversies and offer students the language, frameworks, resources and tools essential for understanding the biggest disputes 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 bound up in people’s personal and political identities and are so contentious, heated, divisive and personally sensitive that it would be a mistake to bring these topics into the college classroom.

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

The high court’s conservative majority may have treated the cases simply as a jurisdictional or a procedural matter of determining which body of government should make decisions about abortion or whether a regulatory agency exceeded its authority in issuing regulations. But to much of the public, what was at stake in these cases were some of 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 a matter that states should have the right to prohibit under all circumstances?
  • Are there long-standing rights, rooted in a half century of precedents, that the court should not tamper with lest that decision raise doubts about a whole host of rights (for example, the right to contraception or to same-sex marriage) that the large swaths of the public rely upon?

As for West Virginia v. EPA (and the court’s January 2022 ruling in NFIB v. OSHA, involving vaccine and testing mandates), at issue are these questions:

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

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

  • The fate of the court-driven 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 do I come out? What advice might I offer about teaching the hottest topics in a polarized, ideologically divided society?

  1. Recognize that a trigger warning is not enough. Be totally transparent about what you are going to cover in the class so that students have a chance to take another course.
  2. Don’t simply treat the controversy as a legal or policy issue. Make sure you include human stories. On abortion, I strongly recommend Caitlin Flanagan’s searing and wrenching “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 complicated and controversial issues. You need to be empathetic and supportive but also highly conscious of your role. If you plan to historicize and contextual the controversy, say so. If you are going to present alternate conceptual or moral or interpretative frameworks, say that.
  4. Make extensive use of primary sources. On abortion, you might consider a downloadable free collection of documents entitled Before Roe, compiled and edited by Linda Greenhouse and Reva Segal and issued by the Yale Law School.
  5. Be prepared for tough or fraught moments. These might include shocking or alarming personal disclosures, flashes of anger and tears. Plan in advance about how best to handle these moments. I urge you to seek advice from your campus’s counseling center.
  6. Create opportunities outside class for students to speak freely and express their emotions. The environment needs to be strongly supportive and might include representatives from appropriate campus support services.

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

  1. Co-create classroom norms and ground rules. Together with your students try to forge some common norms:
  • Listen to your classmates without interrupting them.
  • Don’t personalize arguments; criticize one another’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 umpire, information resource, or devil’s advocate.
  2. Divide an issue into component parts. Disaggregate a tough issue into specific areas of contention and disagreement.
  3. Consider breaking the class into small groups. In a more intimate context, students might be more willing to ask questions, share information and voice their own opinions.
  4. Allow students to remain silent. Don’t put students on the spot. There’s nothing wrong with allowing students to observe the classroom discussion and, in the process, develop their own point of view.
  5. Elevate the conversation. Among our most important roles as an instructor is to help our students rise above mere opinion and develop reasoned, evidence-based, logical, theoretically informed arguments. To that end, be the facilitator you ought to be. Provide your students, directly or through classroom readings, with essential historical background and contemporary context and familiarize them with contrasting perspectives and relevant scholarship.
  6. Channel the conversation in a positive direction. Your goal is not to eliminate disagreements over values, but, rather, to help students understanding the complexities of an issue, understand their detractors’ point of view and make their case as convincingly and compellingly as possible.

We sometimes think of politics as a rough-and-tumble process for achieving consensus. But there is an opposing point of view—called agonism—which I think deserves far more recognition and respect from those outside political science than it generally receives.

Derived from the ancient Greek word agōn, which referred to various kinds of contests and competitions held at public festivals, involving athletics, drama, music, poetry or painting, agonism views conflict over fundamental values as an essential feature of politics. To deny this basic fact, agonism’s proponents 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. In Mouffe’s view, the opposite of conflict isn’t consensus, it’s hegemony, as one side in a debate overpowers its opponents.

Struggle over essential values has certainly been a defining characteristic 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 have varied—whether the dividing line was slavery, evolution, immigration, race, sex, women’s rights, civil liberties, foreign policy, government’s proper role or some other subject of public debate. But conflicts over values, more than region and socioeconomic class or demographic variables, remain the fundamental dividing lines in this society.

Our goal as instructors is not to produce an artificial consensus and certainly not to browbeat, intimidate or badger 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 arguments with precision, logic and evidence.

Those are plausible goals. What isn’t reasonable to expect is achieving a consensus over values where none exists. So embrace your inner John Stuart Mill and understand that the only consensus that is possible within our classrooms is the agreement to disagree.

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

Share Article

Read more by

Back to Top