Controversy belongs in higher education. But there seems to be some disagreement on this topic. Isn’t it ironic? Don’t ya think?
Learning and inquiry require honest and civil engagement of those views which differ from our own. The university should be a place that challenges you, a place where you challenge others, and importantly, a place where each of us is free to express our opinions, regardless of the merits or popularity of these opinions.
True, those on one side of the political aisle decry “cancel culture” every time somebody gets in trouble for expressing a troglodytic idea. Also true, those on the other side of the aisle are too quick to express outrage when an opinion diverges from their own. As a consequence, we are finding it increasingly difficult to stand on common ground.
But the solution is right in front of us. We must embrace the controversy. We must confront controversy. And at every level of education, we must treat controversy as something to be investigated with civility rather than silenced with hostility.
Let’s get one thing out of the way up front. There is a popular conceit which holds that the current generation of students is too fragile to handle controversy. This notion is bunk. This generation has involuntarily grown up on the front lines of the debate over gun violence, has taken a lead on the subject of global climate change, and, in the protests which swept across the United States after the murder of George Floyd, this generation of students proved that it is unafraid to stand up for its beliefs. Fragility is not the issue.
But a culture of fear does permeate administrative offices and teacher lounges everywhere. The punishment for running afoul of acceptable speech in the classroom, or on campus, may be professional death. The “cancel culture” bogeyman looms in the shadows of every controversial topic that finds its way into a classroom or lecture hall.
According to Pew Charitable Trusts, “Social media discussions around ‘cancel culture’ in recent years often have centered on people losing their positions or platforms because of controversial, racist or homophobic comments. In other cases, the term has been applied to attempts by people of color, some historians and progressives to highlight the racist beliefs and actions of historical figures and remove monuments and holidays that honor them.”
Depending on your ideological perspective, you might perceive such actions as removing toxic but long-ingrained ideas from our lecture halls, airwaves, and city streets, or you might view it as stifling our Constitutionally protected right to free speech. Between these differences of opinion are vast and unexplored areas of common ground. But we also share a collective fear of controversy and the risk that it implies. This prevents us from exploring our common ground, and stifles the open exchange of ideas. This, in turn, prevents us from achieving resolution to some of the greatest impasses in our society.
If we are ever to confront and correct these impasses, it will require a generation of graduates who are intellectually prepared not just to make themselves heard, but also to hear others. That can only occur if we make space for the meaningful exploration of controversy in our classrooms.
For an objective take on some of the topics that are most likely to spark public debate these days, check out the Most Controversial Topics. This is an ever-growing look at the hot-button issues on the minds of Americans today, from vaccines and police brutality to Critical Race Theory and reproductive rights.
If you’re still not convinced of the value in open debate, check out these 5 reasons that controversy belongs in college…
Today’s generation of students has been accused frequently of silencing opinion that contradicts its own. Anecdotes abound of professors who are ousted from their positions for expressing views that students find problematic and of firebrand guest speakers who are targeted by protest groups before they can utter a single controversial remark on campus. We aren’t here to weigh in on whether or not this forms a pattern or is merely anecdotal in nature. Nor are we here to suggest that the views of these professors or speakers necessarily have, or lack, merit.
Instead, we would argue rhetorical confrontation is a more productive response than cultural or professional cancellation. Silencing the opinions of others deprives you the opportunity to challenge these opinions and smash them to bits with sound logic. According to the National Council for Social Studies, “Social educational research over the past twenty-five years supports the findings that positive citizenship outcomes were associated with giving students opportunities to explore controversial issues in an open, supportive classroom atmosphere. Social studies courses without controversial issues had little or no effect on students’ political interest or orientation towards participation.”
Ultimately, dismantling bad ideas with strong reasoning is a far better angle than merely shutting them down. It provides a stronger foundation for the expression of your good ideas, held in stark contrast as they are to your debate partner’s more troubling views. Find respectful but forceful ways to dispute the words and ideas expressed by a problematic professor or speaker.
You’ll learn nothing from silence. But you can learn a lot by taking your argument into ideological battle.
It goes without saying that you won’t have the luxury of simply going on the offensive without also playing defense. Your own ideas will be tested. It’s likely that the person with whom you are debating feels just as passionately about their rightness as you do. In other words, in any debate, you will be required to build a rational defense of your own position. If you fail to engage controversy, you lose out on the opportunity to better refine your main points.
A successful debate performance can hinge on your ability to anticipate, preempt, and respond to arguments from your opponents. The more opportunities you take to test out the rationale for your ideas, the more prepared you’ll be to parry advances by your opponent. And of course, the better you parry, the more able you’ll be to thrust when your opponent shows vulnerability.
Putting aside the two points above, taking on controversy shouldn’t simply be about heading into battle. You may disagree with the basic premise offered by your debate partner, but you may also have some very meaningful common ground. It is often on this common ground that those engaged in controversy can find compromise and compatibility.
For instance, you and I may support different candidates for president, but we may both agree that the president’s job should be to address the issue of global climate change. From this common ground, we may have an opportunity to better understand one another. We may not agree on the best candidate for the job, but we may be moved to learn that our commonalities are actually greater than our differences. Engaging in meaningful debate, and leaving space for controversy, gives us a chance to better understand, appreciate, sympathize with, and maybe even share the perspectives of others.
Then again, you may find, in doing so, that your debate partner is just a big jerk and that you have literally nothing in common beyond the fact that you both require oxygen to live. But you’ll only know this for sure if you allow the debate to play out naturally. And who knows? Open discussion may even change how you perceive the matter in its entirety. For more on the ideological changes many of us experience while pursuing a higher education, find out Why Colleges Are So Liberal.
No matter how hard you try to shut them out, opinions that differ from yours will not only be inescapable in your adult life, but they will inform public debate, shape policies, and present themselves at dinner parties, barstool conversations, school board meetings, town halls, and everywhere else that people come together and spout off at the mouth.
If we erase subjects from our schools that risk invoking controversy, we’re presenting an imaginary world, one that doesn’t reflect the real and prevalent role that controversy plays in public life.
Instead, we can look to approaches like the one described in EdSource, which notes that “some successful teachers use an approach to teaching controversial issues characterized as ‘contained risk-taking.’ This approach encourages inquiry and discussion of open questions related to public policy and contested history from diverse perspectives — Should college be tuition-free for all? What is a fair refugee policy? — while the teacher proceeds with caution by building a supportive environment, selecting and framing issues appropriately, and choosing resources and pedagogies wisely.”
Educators who create space for civil disagreement produce students who are more interested in finding solutions to the world’s problems, in lieu of simply proving themselves correct on social media platforms.
Of all the reasons to allow debate into your life, this is likely the most important. Your life will be filled with encounters that challenge you both intellectually and emotionally. There is no version of your future in which you only interact with those who share your worldview. But there may be a version of your future in which you engage controversy with civility, authority and, when necessary, devastating rhetorical precision.
We will likely never agree collectively on certain issues. How you view the validity of Critical Race Theory, or how you perceive the storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters on January 6th is very likely to depend on your political affiliation. Clearly, we are a nation sharply divided. But here is an opportunity for us all to agree on something. Controversy must inherently be a part of higher learning. The things which divide us are real and persistent. Wherever you land on the political spectrum, you do your perspective no favors by denying its counterpoint the right to be heard. And you do your ability to define your position little good by depriving yourself the chance to articulate your perspective before an inhospitable audience.
That’s what college is for.
This is where you have the opportunity to manage your own response to debate, controversy, and even the experience of being genuinely offended by somebody else’s words. All of these things will confront you in your adult life. Use college to learn important skills like articulating your ideas, responding to disagreement with civility and, perhaps most critically, how to choose your battles and when to walk away.
And if you’d like to sharpen your rhetorical debate skills, we strongly advise that you check out The 30 Most Common Logical Fallacies. Learn these fallacies, avoid making them, and call them out when you see them. This is a much more powerful way to dismantle somebody’s repugnant opinion that to simply silence it.
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