The beauty (and danger) of classroom controversy

November 11, 2010 — by Denise Lin

During her English class, junior Ailene Nguyen found herself participating in a heated discussion about Proposition 19, the ballot measure that would have made marijuana legal in California. The dispute grew as the students’ opinions clashed, and the situation may have seemed like a sort of intellectual battlefield, rather than an everyday classroom.

Debates like these often allow students to analyze current events and better identify their stance on issues such as religion, morality and politics. Especially when used in an academic environment, debate and discussion produce sharper, more cognizant citizens.

However, many schools are forced to consider just how much controversy in the classroom is too much and whether some topics are too personal to discuss in a classroom environment.

Such issues can be a cause for concern especially in English and social science classes, where a teacher’s viewpoint regarding sensitive subjects such as gay rights, abortion and religion can affect the students’ opinions or offend students.

If a student disagrees with the teacher about something, he or she may feel pressured to appear as though his or her viewpoints coincide with those of the teacher, out of fear that the teacher could become offended by the opposing viewpoint.

For example, if a teacher strongly advocates liberal policies, conservative students may feel pressured to hide their true opinions in order to avoid receiving a bad grade. This could certainly create an uncomfortable situation for students and teachers alike.

However, clashing opinions in the classroom can also be a gift, if they are dealt with properly.
Certainly, discussing sensitive subjects such as politics and religion may draw students out of their comfort zone. But just as a flesh wound stings when it is being cleaned, bringing uncomfortable issues into the open is necessary for better understanding of these issues.

For example, if a student is prejudiced against a particular religious group, an honest discussion about that group’s practices and beliefs may help to at least temper the animosity. After all, it is better to face controversy in an educational environment rather than “on the streets,” where simple misunderstanding has long been the culprit of serious harassment. For instance, Muslims are often labeled “terrorists” simply because of their appearance, and gay people are harassed because elements of society label them as outsiders.

These types of problems can be greatly reduced if they are discussed in a productive manner. That said, discussions should not be used for mudslinging or making unfounded accusations.

For instance, it would be permissible to debate the ethics of a particular religious practice, but it would be improper to simply denounce a particular religion.

During a classroom discussion, the teacher’s own opinions will often have some degree of influence over the debate. This can be beneficial; a teacher’s concerns may bring a fresh perspective to an issue. As long as the teacher makes clear what is purely his or her opinion, and opens all the perspectives of an issue, including his or her own, to debate, the discussion will remain productive.

It is important to realize that if teachers pass off their opinions as fact, some students will have the erroneous impression that any opinion diverging from that of the teacher’s is incorrect.

Therefore, it is crucial for teachers to distinguish clearly between solid fact and mere opinion during discussions about personal topics like religion, politics and ethics.

Certainly, though, students need to possess a degree of awareness themselves so that they can get the most out of sensitive discussions in class. They must be aware that surrounding societal factors, such as a liberal community, greatly contribute to the direction of a discussion. They should acknowledge that teachers are not robots, and have beliefs of their own, which may or may not coincide with the students’.

Controversy can take the form of a demon or an angel. Ultimately, it is up to the individual teachers to decide whether they will use controversial subjects to create unnecessary tension or enlighten people.

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