Why a Great Education Means Engaging with Controversy

In a new IHS-Big Think video, Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, considers why it’s important for students’ education to engage in controversial discussions.

“If our teachers aren’t leading kids in discussions of controversies, the kids aren’t going to be educated in how to have a discussion,” says Zimmerman. “I think especially at this moment, you turn on the TV, and you’re told that after the commercial break, there’s going to be a debate about some subject—immigration, health care, whatever—and then you watch what ensues, and you see four people shouting at each other or past each other, really a set of sequential rants. That’s what our kids are going to think politics is unless our schools teach them how to engage controversial issues in a fair-minded, tolerant, and reasonable way.”

Zimmerman notes that discussing controversial issues is very difficult, and people won’t learn how to do it unless they’re taught how to do it. Part of the problem is teachers were never taught how to teach this.

“If you interview American school teachers about their pre-service training, and you ask them, ‘As part of your preparation to become a teacher, did your teachers or your university engage you in the question of controversial issues? That is, were you taught how to teach about them?’ Most say no. And I think that anybody who’s going to be a teacher should have thought about, discussed, and addressed precisely what we’re talking about right now.”

Teachers must also be cautious about indoctrination, says Zimmerman.

“[Teachers] are the adult in the room, and I don’t think they have to remain neutral, but I do think that when they profess a political opinion, they have to identify it as such and also make clear to the kids in the room that the kids are not enjoined to share. I think that’s another way, frankly, of modeling what it means to be a democratic citizen. I have opinions. I am not a neutral person. But I also should not and do not demand that you share those opinions. My job is to help you formulate your own.”

Zimmerman points out that this is happening at all levels of education. Students aren’t taught how to discuss contentious issues, and it shows.

“One reason why in higher education we see so much self-censorship and so much fear about engaging in controversial issues, which I think is really what the safe-space doctrine is about, it’s about fear. People come after 18 years of schooling, right? They’ve already had experiences— or not—surrounding these subjects, and it’s more not. That is, they haven’t been prepared in their K through 12 education in how to engage controversial questions in a mutually respectful way. So, in fact, we shouldn’t be surprised that at the university level a lot of people simply avoid doing that.

This video is one in an extended series about civil discourse. To view additional videos from the series, visit the Institute for Humane Studies blog.

Prior videos in this series:

How to Get Smarter About the Partisan Press
with Keith Whittington, Princeton University professor of politics

Social Media, Tribalism, and the Prevalence of Fake News
with Jonathan Rauch, a Brookings senior fellow

Self Command: Learn This Powerful Thinking Tool
with Emily Chamlee-Wright, IHS president

The Psychology of Moral Grandstanding
with Brandon Warmke, Bowling Green State University assistant professor of philosophy

Why Free Speech Has No Political Party
with Jon Zimmerman, University of Pennsylvania professor of history of education

John Stuart Mill’s Big Idea: Harsh Critics Make Good Thinkers
with Keith Whittington, Princeton University professor of politics

Why Pitting Prejudices Against Each Other Keeps Society Free
with Jonathan Rauch, Brookings senior fellow

Free Speech on College Campuses: A Bottom-up Approach
with Emily Chamlee-Wright, IHS president

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