Discussing emotionally charged social controversies in the classroom is one of the few parts of my job for which I feel really well-equipped. I just finished a teaching appointment in systematic theology, but I obtained my doctoral training in that field relatively late in life. My original doctoral training was in political philosophy. (I’m the living embodiment of the old joke about the philosopher who climbed the mountain and found the theologians up there waiting for him.) I’m much more a philosopher than a theologian – but I do know how to steward a conversation that navigates polarized passions without singeing anyone’s eyebrows.
At one point, I told my students I wanted to hear their reactions to something, then played a short video in which a theology professor offered provocative opinions about the role of politics in the church. Unsurprisingly, the initial response to the video was an uncomfortable interval of dead silence. Then one student blurted out: “You know what? I’m sick of not talking about this!” If I had handed out a script, I couldn’t have devised a better opening comment for what turned into a respectful and fruitful exchange of diverse opinions among the students.
These days, handling social controversies in the classroom has become an important part of every teacher’s job. That’s partly because we have a broader understanding of the purpose of education than we used to, but it’s also because increasing political polarization is leaving us less room to keep such controversies at a critical distance from our educational work. You may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you.
One of the most frequent comments I’ve heard from peers in other disciplines is how difficult they find this current situation – and how much more difficult it’s getting each year. Almost all of them see how important it is to have these discussions in the classroom rather than avoiding controversial subjects or shutting down potentially polarizing lines of inquiry. But almost none of these great teachers went into their chosen fields with such issues at the center of their interest or as a key element in their sense of professional identity and vocation.
There’s a frustrating mismatch between their practical needs and their previous equipping.
The overall goal in any classroom should be to put learning first. That’s our job. The primary danger for us as educators in handling controversial material is not that some students may be offended by what other students say. It’s that polarized passions will derail the classroom from a focus on learning – above all, that students’ motivations will be either to win the argument (whatever that means) or to keep their heads down, rather than to learn and grow.
Here are my thoughts on how educators in any discipline can keep learning at the center of the classroom when social controversies become the topic of discussion.
Show, Don’t Tell, the Classroom Ethos
Paradoxically, the more you talk about your goals for handling controversial topics in the classroom, the less likely you are to achieve those goals. Giving your students a big speech about how everyone’s opinion is welcomed is a great way to make students feel much less safe and comfortable sharing their real opinions. It exacerbates students’ already-pervasive sense of foreboding, that they live forever underneath a sword of Damocles that could drop at any moment.
Constantly reassuring the children that they are safe from the Boogeyman – bringing him up over and over, in order to emphasize that there is no such person – is a great way to keep the children up all night in terror.
Not to mention: Even as this approach makes some students feel more put on the spot (as if the professor had singled them out personally for protective privilege) it will make other students feel that it is now okay to go ahead and rhetorically punch their peers in the face as hard as they want (because, after all, the professor specifically told us that anything goes).
Far better to demonstrate to our students, precisely by not talking about this difficulty, that we feel no need for elaborate safeguards. This approach projects a quiet confidence, grounded in our faith that the Holy Spirit will guide the church, that the students are mature enough to handle sensitive topics with respect and hospitality. Above all, it implicitly invites each student to proceed on the assumption that the other students in the classroom will demonstrate maturity, which is the most important thing needed to unlock their thoughtful participation.
This principle of prophetic confidence extends not only to classroom ethos but to academic substance. When I walked my class through biblical descriptions of sin as a social reality, one student objected that if we use the phrase “social sin,” we will inevitably “import cultural ideologies associated with that phrase into the church.” I pointed out that we have freedom in the Holy Spirit to say “yes” confidently to whatever is true, and at the same time say “no” with equal confidence to whatever is not true. If worldly powers threateningly demand that if we say X, we must also say Y, we can simply inform these powers that because we fear God, who can kill the soul in hell, we no longer fear them, as their power is so pathetically puny that the worst thing they can do to us is merely to kill our bodies (which were only going to die soon anyway).
Of course, the approach I suggest requires accepting responsibility (which we will have whether we accept it or not) for correcting students when they do make comments that fail to demonstrate maturity. Recently, when a student made such a comment in my class, I tried to correct it with a fairly gentle approach, not wanting to humiliate this student in front of peers. Afterward, another student who had been offended at the comment came to me to express frustration with the gentleness of my approach – and I think there was probably merit in that complaint. I could have been more direct, for the sake of other students in the room.
We are always learning to manage our classrooms better – which implies that our sense of how limited our abilities are should be empowering, not paralyzing.
Be a Color Commentator
It is an old question whether teachers should reveal to students where they themselves stand on controversial issues. The exact parameters for talking about—or responding to student inquiries about—one’s own opinions will vary from topic to topic, from discipline to discipline, and from context to context (with complex interactive effects). But in general, I think it is important neither to foreground one’s own opinions – as if hearing us pontificate were the primary educational value of the classroom! – nor to conceal them and pretend that we are robots when the students know perfectly well we are not and are often interested in our opinions precisely because they want to hear an opinion from a thoughtful and well-informed interlocutor.
My general approach has been not to mention my own opinions unless there is a clear reason to do so (usually, when I get asked what I think), and in such cases, to state my opinion briefly – implicitly communicating as a subtext that I don’t think my opinions are really what the students are in my classroom to hear about – and then move on.
This approach implies something about our role as educators that can be most easily expressed by a sports metaphor. In order to put the job of education first, we must not think of ourselves as players on one of the contending teams, trying to win the game for one side or another. But neither can we plausibly present ourselves as impartial referees, when our students know that in fact we do have opinions, and will often value us more as educators if we discuss our opinions.
I like to think of myself as a color commentator. My job is to share a body of knowledge – about the sport itself, about the teams, and about the players – and to assist the audience in interpreting the meaning of the complex phenomena happening during the game. My taking on such a role naturally implies I will have my own opinions and preferences about the sport, the teams, and the players. (What kind of a dunce would I have to be to know as much as I know about them and not form any opinions?) The occasional mention of my opinions during the broadcast may be interesting and humanizing. But my primary role is to help the audience understand what is happening on the field, and I am abusing my position at the microphone if I take advantage of it to advocate the abolition of the designated hitter or the tuck rule.
This Is No New Teaching about Teaching
This approach is, in general, the way professors already tend to handle classroom questions about their positions on professional controversies in their fields. Handling controversies is part of a professor’s job description. While social controversy shifts the context and raises the emotional stakes, it does not really change the nature of the pedagogical challenge.
For example, in my systematics classroom students inevitably want to know whether I am a Calvinist, an Arminian, or some more exotic theological breed. My practice has been to inform them that although I am a Calvinist, I was trained in systematics by the notorious anti-Calvinist Tom McCall – “and if he couldn’t cure me, I suppose I must be an incurable case.” I have found this puts my students completely at ease, not only because it indicates that I have a good track record of working well with those of other convictions, but because making a joke about it communicates that we are all friends and colleagues together in the midst of these differences. The same approach, suitably adjusted, can help with political and social controversies.
That seems like a great thought to end on: This challenge is not as new as it may at first appear to be. We have always been dealing with controversies in the classroom! The social and political issues we now have to handle are usually much more emotionally charged – although not always, as the example of Calvinism v. Arminianism shows. But the shape of the challenge should be familiar to us.