Teaching Controversial Topics In High School Philosophy


Last summer, Landon Hedrick, a PhD student at the University of Nebraska who, while working on his dissertation, teaches philosophy at the Vanguard Classical School in Chicago, wrote in with questions about teaching logic and critical thinking to high school students. He now has some questions about teaching more controversial topics in a high school philosophy class. These include the subjects typically covered in contemporary moral problems or normative political and legal philosophy courses, but conceivably could also include some basic material in philosophy of religion and philosophy of science.

Mr. Hedrick will be sharing his experiences and discussing the issue at the upcoming conference of the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO), but writes that he would like “to hear from other educators who have a lot more experience than myself.” He adds:

I think this conversation is an important one to have, as it bears directly on the perceived importance and acceptability of teaching philosophy in high school.  As you can imagine, many parents worry about the kinds of topics that their children are learning about in school.  We educators need to figure out what (moral, prudential, legal, etc.) reasons there are for and against teaching controversial issues in high school philosophy classes, and we need to weigh those reasons in order to come up with a plan of action.

Advice and insights welcome. If you’ve had experience teaching these subjects to high-schoolers, please share your thoughts. And if you have relevant experience or concerns as a parent of a high-schooler, that would be helpful to hear about, too.

I have not taught contemporary moral problems to high school students, but I teach it to undergraduates regularly. I try to make clear to my students that:

  1. Disagreement is to be expected. Getting the students to agree with the instructor or each other is not the aim of the course. Rather, an aim of the course is to teach the students how to disagree well.
  2. The things they think settle disputes on these issues are typically just the opening moves in a more thorough philosophical understanding of them. An aim of the course is to get students to understand that these issues are more complicated than they’ve been led to believe.
  3. Each person comes to these issues with a point of view informed and shaped by their own experiences, and others’ experiences may be very different from yours. An aim of the course is for students to learn to see that others’ different experiences are opportunities for learning about how to live.
  4. If they are too concerned with making sure the answers to these controversial issues with which they walked into the classroom are protected from refutation they may find philosophy scary and unpleasant. An aim of the course is to get the students to realize there is greater happiness and freedom in loyally pursuing the truth wherever it may lie.

While making the aims of the course explicit in fairly uncontroversial language (such as in the italicized statements above) might be of some help both in setting expectations among the students and assuaging concerns of parents (well maybe #4 will worry some parents), I would imagine that others have much more concrete and well-informed advice to share. Please do.

 

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Erik H
Erik H
4 years ago

An aim of the course is to get the students to realize there is greater happiness and freedom in loyally pursuing the truth wherever it may lie.
Which truth? Anyone who thinks they know what the truth is tend to be scary folks.

The truth that [insert your preferred philosophical sacred cow here] is necessary, or the truth that [sacred cow] is bunk?

The truth that it is even possible to know [insert philosophical sacred goat] or the truth that no [sacred goat] can really exist?

The truth that inquiry is most important, or the truth that inquiry must take a back seat to emotional claims (hmm, you can get Tuvel to guest-lecture.)

And so on.

I would be extraordinarily hesitant about anyone trying to tell my kids what the “truth” is. I’d be especially hesitant these days, what with so much of philosophy getting corrupted by the social justice movement, which in some cases is explicitly opposed to certain inquiries about objective truth. Nor would I trust an unknown philosopher (much less one who has no experience with teaching groups of kids) to lead them down a path of disagreement, where a true-but-non-PC comment may cause major social issues.

Methods, on the other hand, are fine.Report

Erik H
Erik H
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
4 years ago

[shrug] You asked for opinions; you didn’t limit them to current philosophy profs (I have a different doctorate). Don’t get up in arms about the results.

Are you speaking from a properly documented autoethnographic viewpoint? I am; I am a parent of high school students. Perhaps your experience is different, but I have found that ‘charitable interpretation’ in the context of education is, to put it mildly, unwise. Especially when it comes to teachers.

This is Exhibit A. Most people aren’t especially competent to teach: if you can’t be bothered to be precise at the proposal stage, why should I grant you an assumption of competence at the teaching stage? Most people aren’t socially suited to teach: If you respond to a challenge (not even a personal or insulting one) with snark at the proposal/discussion stage, why should anyone expect you to be receptive to criticism at the teaching stage?Report

Preston
Preston
Reply to  Erik H
4 years ago

Hi Erik,
As I think ‘docfe’ responded completely adequately to your objections to Landon’s comments, I’ll just add: Justin was being snarky, sure, but he also pointed out the problem with your comment.
I’m really sorry to hear about whatever bad experiences you’ve had with teachers in the past, but as someone who knows Mr. Hedrick personally, I don’t think you have to worry that he’s going to indoctrinate students into whatever horrendous worldview you’re concerned about.Report

docfe
docfe
Reply to  Erik H
4 years ago

I don’t think he said he was going to tell or help students find THE truth, only that this was an end to pursue the truth and find the satisfaction in pursuing the truth. Dictating truth and placing truth as an end to pursue are surely very different.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

“An aim of the course is to get the students to realize there is greater happiness and freedom in loyally pursuing the truth wherever it may lie.” It seems false to me that pursuing truth wherever it may lie leads to greater happiness and freedom, at least, if we mean the happiness and freedom of the individual persuing truth. Truth is often upleasant, and often reveals moral duties to us that constrain us from doing what we want.Report

Landon Hedrick
4 years ago

Thank you, Justin, for posting this. And thanks in advance to anyone willing to share their thoughts about this issue here in the comments section. I may as well make a few points myself.

First and foremost, I think it’s more important in high school philosophy than it is in college philosophy for the teacher to generally avoid trying to convince the students of his or her own view. While that can be a valuable method of teaching a subject (see, e.g., Shelly Kagan’s excellent course and corresponding book about death), I don’t think school administrators, parents, or even (certain) students would let that fly. So I think it’s generally a bad strategy to try to teach a segment of philosophy of religion in high school by setting out to convince the students that God does or doesn’t exist, even if you’ve made it clear that they don’t have to agree with your assessment of the evidence in order to succeed in the course. I try to avoid telling the students what I even think about a lot of the topics I teach them about. This is not to say, however, that we shouldn’t ever reveal any of our philosophical positions in the high school classroom. I see little harm in informing students that I think skepticism is mistaken, for example, but I also think it’s important to argue as convincingly as I can for and against skepticism to help them see the merits of each side.

As a high school teacher, I often find myself faced with the challenge of determining which topics would be acceptable to include in my classes. One of these challenges has to do with the appropriateness of teaching certain controversial issues–notably, religious, political, and moral issues. For instance, when teaching about paternalism in a political philosophy class, should one discuss the drug war and talk about arguments for the legalization of drugs? When teaching moral philosophy, should one discuss abortion? When teaching a segment on metaphysics, should one present arguments for and against the existence of God? Although I don’t think these topics are all on a par, these are all questions that arise for the high school philosophy teacher and demand an answer.

One way of dealing with this issue is to never broach any controversial issues in high school philosophy classes. This is the method of exercising extreme caution. At the other end of the spectrum, one could simply teach all or most of the usual topics one might cover in a college-level course on the grounds that they are valuable topics to learn about. My tentative suggestion is to opt for a middle course. In the standard high school philosophy classes, especially including courses required for graduation, we ought to exercise due caution and try to avoid some of the more hot-button issues. In more advanced, specialized classes (especially including classes taught for concurrent college credit), we should feel more free to tackle the controversial topics as long as parents have been duly warned prior to their student getting signed up for the course.

My suggestion is based largely on prudential reasoning. Philosophy currently has a precarious place in high school curricula. In most schools, it’s entirely absent from the curriculum. Like others, I want to see that change. But I suspect that it will be hard to get philosophy accepted by more schools/districts if the subject gets a reputation of pushing the boundaries of what parents and administrators deem acceptable. There are a lot of benefits of studying philosophy, and many of those benefits can be had even if we focus on less controversial (yet still interesting) topics. And since learning about those more controversial issues can also be important, my proposed middle course does not rule out teaching some of those things in high school classes–it just relegates them to upper-level philosophy classes that parents must agree to before their students can sign up.Report

Adjunct
Adjunct
Reply to  Landon Hedrick
4 years ago

This seems right to me. I’ve taught HS students ethics in an extra-curricular setting, and it was foremost on my mind that in addition to dealing with the students I was legally answerable to their parents and would be required to explain the purposes of the activity and how/why it would benefit their kids. Does this mean that they’re exposed to a somewhat sanitized version of philosophy? Yes. At least, initially. Near the end of the course we can show, or perhaps tell, the students what sorts of future topics may come up in college level philosophy courses–this is a great way to keep them interested and perhaps inspire them to become philosophers earlier than most of us became philosophers.

As an anecdote, I recognize that often it is perfectly OK for us to make our views known to our (college level) students. I still take as compliment the student who asked me after a semester of philosophy of religion whether or not I believed in God. My response was, “If you do not know the answer to that question, then I have done my job.” I’ve found it useful to try and present material in a way that takes myself out of the picture.Report

John Taylor
John Taylor
4 years ago

I’d recommend Michael Hand and Ralph Levinson’s excellent paper.

http://eprints.ioe.ac.uk/17948/1/Hand_and_Levinson_2012.pdf

One of the points they make well is that an element of controversy is valuable in making the classroom discussion effective. When supervising high school projects on philosophical and ethical themes I encourage them to ‘locate the debate’ and to ask questions which admit of controversy; it is this element which gets them thinking.Report

Eric Thomas Weber
4 years ago

Landon,

I’m presently attending your talk on this subject in Chicago. Great topic! One important issue, I think, has to do with the consent. In college, one elects to be in a classroom. Certain courses are required, but most are not. If we go the route of requiring philosophy in high school, students would not have a choice about whether to take the subject. That seems to be an important consideration to weigh when you think about how and whether to incorporate the most controversial subjects. A parent may reasonably want to limit exposure to discussions about child pornography, for example, for their kids who are younger than the legal age of adulthood.
Best,

EricReport

Landon Hedrick
Reply to  Eric Thomas Weber
4 years ago

Eric,

Very good point. As I think I mentioned during the talk or Q&A, our moral philosophy class is not an optional class. It is required for graduation. Perhaps this is a significant part of the reason I think it would be unwise to fill the syllabus with controversial topics, though I didn’t explicitly make this connection during my talk.

Some of the comments I heard at the conference seemed to amount to something like this: It doesn’t matter what topic you teach; it really has to do with how you teach it and how your relationship is with the students. I think there’s a lot that’s correct about those comments, though I think the issue is more complicated than they might suggest. One audience member mentioned that every philosophical topic is by its very nature controversial. I guess this was a way of suggesting that my concerns were misplaced. I don’t think that point is quite on target, however. Philosophical issues are contentious and unsettled, sure. But I’m guessing that students and parents aren’t going to be as sensitive and emotionally reactive to a lesson on theories of truth as they will be to a lesson on abortion or euthanasia. There’s “controversial” in the sense of “unsettled and highly debated,” and there’s “controversial” in the sense of “sensitive and prone to cause strong emotional reactions.”Report