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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Teach the controversy — but how?

In The Case for Contention, Jonathan Zimmerman and Emily Robertson argue for the Enlightenment tradition, writes David Steiner in an Education Next review. “Leading students in discussion of controversial issues can be regarded as essential to effective and efficient education,” writes Steiner, a Johns Hopkins education policy professor. Discussing controversial issues teaches students to “formulate and evaluate arguments.”

Teaching controversy always has been difficult, write Zimmerman and Robertson. “We simply do not trust our teachers to engage students on controversial issues in a knowledgeable and sensitive manner,” the authors write.

In the second part of the book, the authors distinguish between topics where “expert” opinion is largely settled, and “those on which both public and experts’ judgments diverge,” writes Steiner. For issues such as evolution and global warming, teachers should teach students to respect the experts and understand the basis for their judgments, the authors conclude.

If there is no expert or public consensus, the authors advocate “teaching the controversy,” adding that “parents may legitimately ask that the schools represent their side of the issue.”

However, the book barely mentions abortion, the death penalty or other of the “most obviously controversial ethical issues of our time,” writes Steiner. The authors ask whether the concept of  “white privilege” should be taught, but don’t answer the question.

“Discussing current events, debating current issues (including controversies) and participating in simulations of democratic processes and procedures” increase students’ civic knowledge, according to a 2013 analysis by Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg of Tufts University, writes Steiner.

Bret Weinstein

The most vocal college students don’t want to discuss issues, it seems. They already know all the answers.

At Washington’s Evergreen State College, a “deeply progressive” biology professor objected to a call for all white faculty, staff and students to leave campus for a Day of Absence. (They were supposed to attend anti-racism workshops off campus.) In a March 15 email to the event’s coordinator, the director of First Peoples Multicultural Advising Services, Bret Weinstein wrote, “On a college campus, one’s right to speak — or to be — should never be based on skin color.”

The biology professor offered to organize a public discussion of “race through a scientific/evolutionary lens,” as long as “people attend with an open mind, and a willingness to act in good faith.”

When the email was disclosed, 50 students surrounded him after class to accuse him of racism and demand his resignation. A video shows the professor trying to “reason with dozens of students who routinely shout him down, curse at him and demand his resignation,” reports the College Fix. Weinstein tried to draw a distinction between debate and dialectic.

“Debate — wait a second — debate means you are trying to win; dialectic means you are using disagreement to discover what is true. I am not interested in debate. I am only interested in dialectic, which does mean I listen to you, and you listen to me.” One student responds, “We don’t care what terms you want to speak on. This is not about you. We are not speaking on terms—on terms of white privilege. This is not a discussion. You have lost that one.”Told by campus police they couldn’t guarantee his safety on campus, Weinstein held his Thursday class in a park off campus.
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