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Blog January 29, 2024

SHHH! WE DON’T TALK ABOUT THAT: Preparing students to engage with difficult issues

Do you ever worry that Canadians have a niceness problem? In classes and in groups many of us are afraid to voice opinions that others might see as unpleasant, contrary, or even worse, hateful. It isn’t that we all agree with one another. Our opinions and views are as varied as they are in any other society. But many of us have been conditioned simply to be agreeable with one another. We have not learned how to disagree or that disagreement can lead to better understanding of issues. It is a skill that can and should be taught from a very early age.

Are teachers prepared to help our young people develop competence in disagreement? If not, we may risk losing our very principles of democracy and democratic engagement to our fears of being unkind – or worse, to our insistence upon being right.

There is no doubt that teaching critical thinking in an environment where people are afraid to share their views is very hard work. But we can set a few ground rules to help, and we can model disagreements where no “correct” position is achieved. To be clear, it goes without saying that physical violence or threats of violence are never permitted.

In any class of young children (up to grade 3 for example), there will be kids who love dogs, kids who are afraid of dogs, kids who prefer cats, birds, fish, or rodents, and kids who are unimpressed or not permitted to have pets. We can bring this topic up easily because learning that people are different from one another is welcome in most elementary school curricula. 

We begin with each child getting to express her personal view, but no one may call out anyone else for their opposing view and nor may any participant denigrate anyone else for their opinions. Everyone has a chance to register a view, and everyone must listen to what is said. Is it okay to say, “I hate dogs?” Absolutely. But it is not okay to say that everyone who loves dogs is evil -- because that is objectively false. Can someone express the view that according to their religious belief dogs are unclean? Certainly. Is it then logical to say that everyone who has a dog is unclean? Again, this is objectively false because there is very little that can be said to be true about EVERYONE. We have now begun to explore stereotyping and why it is meaningless. But we have not accused anyone of causing harm nor have we suppressed anyone’s expression. We have not made any conclusions about whether pet-keeping is to be emulated, banned, lauded, or denigrated. We have, however, spent time listening. This is a highly underrated skill. Listening is not the same as waiting your turn to say what you think. It is a deliberate and thoughtful process that can be taught and learned.

In a 2022 study on learning to teach controversial issues in a divided society, Judith L. Pace of the Faculty of Education at the University of San Francisco looked at teacher-candidates in Northern Ireland and the US. I think one of her saddest conclusions is that in most situations, teachers are so overburdened with curricular demands that democratic discourse, if taught at all, is squeezed into ever-diminishing citizenship education classes. It can be done, but it isn’t considered valuable enough to hold its own place in the curriculum.

Another look at how we are dealing with contentious issues in democracies is Sarah Schulman’s 2016 book about how our society deals badly with disagreement. It is titled “Conflict is Not Abuse.” In this book, she shares a lengthy and at times highly controversial social media intergroup conversation about the Israel-Palestine conflict. While this book predates the events of  October 7, 2023 and its aftermath, the opinions and statements made by the participants are very similar to those we are seeing and hearing in all the media now. Remarkably, Schulman does not feel that she must tell her readers that some statements are true and others false. She does not agree that some statements cause harm, even though she acknowledges that they may be offensive. She lets the reader make her or his own choices.

John Stuart Mill, in his 1859 seminal work on freedom of expression in democracy, On Liberty, rejects state regulation and also social coercion to force “correct” opinion. He said we should seek disagreement without the fear of punishment. He also speaks of the need for variety (read diversity) of character and ideas as fundamental to democracy.

If we want to continue to live in an inclusive, highly pluralistic, and democratic society, we need to get to work now. We need to show teacher-candidates not only how to deal with controversy when it occurs, but how to invite it into the classroom. As our societies become more and more divided along political and ideological lines, it is crucial to make space and time for this kind of education.

Our young teachers need to be courageous, and they need to work hard. They need to read widely so that they will be prepared to listen to voices that differ from their own. If they disagree with certain points of view or political expression, they need to understand where it comes from, and they need to avoid taking personal offence, even where their own identities may be targeted by that expression. They can do this by asking questions and expecting open-ended discussions around those questions. 

Can we talk with a high-school politics or social sciences class about what is happening in the Middle East without fearing that something said will constitute “hate speech?” We can open the discussion by looking at definitions of hate speech. What is it? Who gets to define it? Do we like the legal definition? Do we want to amend it or are we so concerned that we cannot come up with a definition that works to exclude what we want excluded, but still permits us to have debate and controversy that we might want to dispose of it altogether? Once we have explored these issues, we are ready to look at our world and listen to one another– but we are always ready to ask more questions. 

A teacher who is prepared to send home students who have strong opinions on any side of an issue to research opinions that they do not personally support is both courageous and engaged. The students may come back even more strongly convinced of their previous views, or they may come back with difficult questions. If they have been challenged, we have done our job -- and three cheers for the questions!