Hot buttons, cool heads

Michael Boylan on strategies to engage, empower and educate students when discussing controversial issues

March 31, 2011

Nathifa gets up from her chair. "None of you understand! You're all tied up in your Western imperialist bigotry. I'm not going to sit here and hear Muslims bashed any more!" She turns and leaves, followed by three more students of Middle Eastern origin. A student at the back of the room shouts out: "Good riddance!"

Short of a fist fight, this scenario is at the extreme of what lecturers may encounter. But finding a way to discuss hot-button political issues is extremely important if our teaching is to have positive relevance in students' lives. This has become especially pressing in light of recent unrest in the Middle East.

At a meeting at my university, lecturers discussed strategies for dealing with sensitive issues. The most popular response was: "Don't let those issues get discussed. Quash them in a hurry - they only lead to trouble." A variant is: "I set the ground rules - everything can be discussed except religion."

Both of these approaches are unsatisfactory because they suggest that academia cannot offer a venue to discuss everything. Sweeping uncomfortable topics under the rug will inevitably lead to students responding to them via unreflective, prejudicial worldviews. Such an outcome abnegates higher education's role in creating informed and empowered citizens.

The first step toward transforming the university classroom into an open forum for positive discussion is the separation of students from their personal opinions. A class of 30 students with 30 separate points of view ready to engage in heated discussion is a recipe for chaos. Rather, we need 30 students collectively exploring the various ways one can think about a problem.

Particular techniques can help. One that is especially useful in larger groups is to divide the class randomly in half; ask one side to come up with arguments supporting "x" while the other half must defend "not-x". The lecturer acts as an information resource and facilitates discussion via follow-up queries.

Another approach is to rule that all discussions on a hot-button topic must include several conflicting positions, to be developed by the group and defended from clearly articulated personal and community positions. Students can then discover the relationship between strongly held tenets and the action prescriptions that follow. Again, since no one "owns" a viewpoint, there is more freedom of expression.

The major risk is the possibility of moral scepticism. We don't want students coming out saying: "I learned that there are equally strong arguments for A, B and C; therefore, they are equally all true and all false." If we turn out moral sceptics, then we have corrupted our students.

This is a serious charge (just ask Socrates). To avoid this outcome, we need a model that first sets out the moral issues and then considers policy strategies to get there.

For example, in Libya, Western and Middle Eastern nations spent weeks agonising over whether they should involve themselves militarily. To evaluate this question, first we must ask whether autocratic dictatorship is a politically acceptable form of government. Does it matter whether the autocrat is benevolent or is malevolent? It may. This is a teachable moment that includes political theory. Do John Stuart Mill's principles of national sovereignty deny outside interference? What about third party self-defence?

Then, can there be limited outside military intervention without subsequent nation-building and its associated costs?

It is one question to determine whether Libya requires outside intervention, and it is another to specify just what policy gets you there. By addressing these questions, separately, students are fulfilling the requirements of democratic citizens: first, to rationally examine, without prejudice, the various dimensions of a practical problem; second, to determine what is right or wrong based on ethical or political theory; and third, to engage discussion on the best policy to achieve it.

If we can get students into this process of decision-making, then we've done our job. The lecturer stands squarely in the middle, and our students become empowered, reasonable participants in democracy.

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