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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