Teaching Controversial Issues to High Schoolers

by Harry on May 7, 2008

Dina has kindly posted a draft of a chapter that I wrote that is forthcoming in a volume on Philosophy in Schools. I wrote most of it a long time ago, when I was working at the Institute of Education, and involved in developing the Citizenship Education program there. Conversations with teachers, teacher educators, and researchers confirmed that a lot of teachers who would be leaned on to teach Citizenship Education lack the necessary confidence and resources to teach about controversial moral issues in a non-dogmatic way. This is not a criticism—it is what I heard from them, directly. It seemed to me that the experience of college-level philosophy teachers especially of service courses (such as my Contemporary Moral Issues course) might be useful for teachers to reflect on. What especially struck me at the time was that teachers did not have a lot of written material to read, either to prompt discussion in class or to help them prepare for managing such discussion. So the chapter linked to basically outlines the way that I tend to introduce my CMI course, and outlines a way of thinking about the values at stake in various debates, but then, at the end, gives very short (1500 words or so) accounts of some of the moral debates around two issues in bioethics—abortion, and designing children. I’ve copied the “designing children” section below the fold, but encourage teachers to read the whole thing.

A comment Dina made to me in an email—that she was preparing to use a thought experiment from my book Justice in class—prompted me to think it might be useful to collect a bunch of such precis in a single place, readily available on the web for any teacher who wanted to use them. I don’t mean to be prescriptive (though the chapter probably sounds that way)—I realise that the way I go about teaching these issues will work for some people, not for others—but it seems to me that if a teacher has an analytic turn of mind resources like these might be helpful. If I make any headway on developing such a resource I’ll let you know. Anyway, here’s the bit on designing children:

Technology now exists that allows parents to choose – or at least dramatically increase the probability of their children having – certain genetic traits. There are three central mechanisms:

1. Selective abortion (which enables parents to abort fetuses found to have certain disabilities, such as Downs Syndrome and Cystic Fybrosis; or, in the most common case, to abort female fetuses when a boy is wanted).

2. Selection of the other biological parent. This is routine, of course, when people choose their partners, which are typically of the same race, social class, and national identity as they are. But in the US, for example, it is legal to pay for the services of sperm donors and egg donors, and it is therefore possible to select the traits of those donors without having actually to marry, or in any way attract, them. A famous advertisement in the daily newspaper of an Ivy League university sought an egg donor who was at least 5ft 10 in, had a family history free of congenital disease, and a high IQ; the promised fee was $50,000. In 2000, Sharon Duchesneau and Candy Mcullough, a lesbian couple, sought a sperm donor with 5 generations of deafness in his family to increase the probability that their child would, like them, be deaf.

3. Gene-therapy. This is the fastest-growing form of designing babies – gene therapy can be used to avoid certain traits, and to select others, such as eye colour. In our lifetimes it is likely that scientists will have sufficient understanding of the human genome to support the development of technology that will allow parents to prevent some disabilities and to choose many desirable traits (eye colour, IQ, height, etc) without rejecting a given fetus.

This is a moral issue, unlike abortion, concerning which there is not yet a large and sophisticated philosophical literature to draw on, so rather than focus in depth on particular arguments, it is more fruitful to try and elicit considerations pointing one way or another. In that spirit here are some arguments for and against allowing parents freedom, with some discussion.

A) Arguments for allowing people to design their babies:

1. Parents should be allowed to do their best for their children. We allow them to buy them private schooling, which helps them to earn more money and have more rewarding jobs. We allow them to buy cosmetic orthodontistry, to make them more confident and more attractive to potential mates. We even allow adults to buy all sorts of cosmetic surgery to make them more attractive. Selecting traits is not fundamentally different: it is just allowing parents to do their best for their children. If we have the technology people should be allowed to use it. (Note that there is economic research showing that men who are taller, and people who are more conventionally attractive, earn more money than others over the course of their lives, controlling for social class background, schooling, and IQ)

2. Parents should be allowed to choose traits of their children, so that the children will be more like, or perhaps less like, them. We allow them to choose what sort of schooling their children get; what sort of church if any they will go to; what sort of communities they will grow up in (for example, they can raise them in a Kibbutz, or a hippy commune, or a strict religious order). If they are allowed to do it by choosing their environments, why shouldn’t they be allowed to do it by choosing the child’s traits?

3. Regardless of what we actually allow right now, human freedom is a great good, and respecting it requires that we allow parents to use available technology without the government intruding by asking about their motives and effects, as long as in doing so they do not cause serious harms to their children or others.

B). Arguments against allowing it:

1. Man should not interfere with nature.
This is the most common response, but it is not really an argument. First of all, man is part of nature, and whatever he does is ‘natural’. So saying that man should not interfere with nature does not rule anything out. Of course, people usually mean something else by ‘nature’ in this context, but it is not clear what. If it means whatever is outside man, the principle would disallow all of modern technological society, and would especially disallow medical interventions to cure disease and lessen suffering. “Not natural” is often a not very good way of articulating a sense of deep unease for which one cannot actually provide and argument

2. Human diversity is very important. If parents were allowed to select traits, diversity would diminish, because there would be a `race to the top’ as it were, in which everyone had a few, highly valued, traits. This argument is stronger against selection of some traits than others. For example, sex selective abortion is used widely in Asia to select against girl children, who are less economically valuable to their parents than boy children. It is easy to see the potential for social disaster if the ratio of women to men fell dramatically.

But what about other traits? Why would it matter if, for example, there were less diversity of eye color, or of height, or even of IQ. And even for those traits that we do want diversely dispersed, this doesn’t rule out the use of trait-selection. The government could auction rights to select traits for example, and limit the supply of rights so that the distribution of traits remains diverse. This would allow the rich to get what they wanted for their children, so might be thought to be unfair. But it could use the income from the auction to provide a basic income for all those children who do not get the most highly valued traits. Or the government could organize a lottery to distribute rights to select traits, in which every parent has an equal stake.

3. We don’t know what the consequences would be for natural selection, and for society, of allowing widespread trait-selection. So we should not do it. This argument needs spelling out a bit more. Ask students what sort of bad consequences they might expect? The science is certainly young and the technology is bound to be a bit uncertain, and it is reasonable to apply a certain principle of conservatism to these sorts of matters. But as the science and technology improves, won’t the strength of this objection fade?

4. American philosopher Michael Sandel has recently advanced an argument (in The Case Against Perfection) against allowing people to design their offspring grounded in the motives involved. He argues, broadly speaking, that what is wrong with designing children is the hubris of the activity, the attempt to master what is and ought to be a mysterious process. To the response that parents exhibit similar hubris by, for example, intensively subjecting their children to high pressure schooling, and trying to control their friendship networks etc, Sandel says, certainly, they do these things, and in doing so they exhibit the same vice; intensive parenting is bad for the same reason that designing children is.

C. An argument for allowing some design interventions but not others:

The claim here is that society should allow parents to eliminate disabilities by whatever route is possible, but not to select advantageous traits and abilities, and not to force disabilities on them. Why? Because people have a right to live a normal life, if it is possible, and this means they have a right to be rid of disabilities (if technology allows) and not to have disabilities forced on them. But they do not have a right to have advantages over others, like being taller and more attractive. The natural objection is that some people are, in fact, taller and more attractive than others, because they are lucky enough to have tall, or attractive, parents (or short or unattractive parents who accidentally passed on a combination of traits that underwrite height or attractiveness). Why should these advantages be restricted to people lucky enough to have the necessary genetic heritage?

What about Sharon Duchesneau and Candy McCullough? Most students, hearing of their choice, will think that they were doing something profoundly wrong, and will agree with Baroness Nicholson’s comment that ‘If they succeed, that child should have the right to sue its parent for imposing on it a disability’. (Nicholson is deaf herself; and they did succeed, and have a son). But in fact deafness is rather a special disability. Many deaf adults believe that they participate in a community with other deaf adults, and say, apparently sincerely, that they do not regard their deafness as a disability, or defect, at all. There is no other (apparent) disability which is so widely embraced by those who suffer it. The deaf have, furthermore, one of the standard markers of culture, a distinctive language. There is a real case against the claim that deafness is a disability at all. Furthermore, it is very hard to see what complaint the deaf child has in this case. If his mothers had not selected that donor he (the deaf child) would never have been born. He would never have existed. Surely it is better for her that she is alive than that she had never been alive. We could only deny this if we thought that the life of someone who was profoundly deaf was not worth living, which is obviously false.



Gori Girl 05.07.08 at 3:05 am

The Deaf case of Sharon & Candy was actually a National Ethics Bowl case (think college debate, but for philosophy nerds) a couple of years back. I worked on it for my team, and it was quite an interesting issue. We ended up (morally) against allowing parents to select for disability, but grounding that stance was difficult: the non-identity problem makes it impossible to make a case based on any harm principle, and it took some quick stepping to keep from advancing a too-strong moral principle that would require parents to do whatever it takes to advance their children’s advantages.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good article on this subject .


c.l. ball 05.07.08 at 3:17 am

This is a very thoughtful presentation, though we can say things about deafness (“deafness is rather a special disability”) that we can say about others — blindness, for example, which has its own aesthetics. There is no universal sign language; I’m told that British Sign Language and American Sign Language are not mutually understandable, and that few of the sign languages have a distinct written form that is used by the deaf.

One of the major problems faced by high school students (and college students, and by college professors who don’t have ethics training), is an understanding of the basic ways of arguing about ethics — e.g, deontological v. consequentialist ethics.

One item not in there, but worth considering: what is the ethical difference between an Asian family that already has a son and aborts a female fetus in order to have another son, and an American family that has a daughter and aborts a male fetus, in order to have a daughter.


joji 05.07.08 at 4:12 am

Yes, thoughtful. And controversial.

I am a parent, a teacher, a Catholic, and a Filipina. I live in a country where cultural norms are a lot different than yours. While i am inclined to embrace novel ideas about how to raise children to give them an edge in our world today, I am wary about exercising this right too much. The science of designing children is young and objections are still rife. I welcome more literature on this.

Meanwhile, I have to reexamine my own ethics on “designing children”. It seems that “raising children” is spilled milk. I wonder how my students– and children–would view this.

About Asian families who abort daughters in favor of sons and American families who abort sons in favor of daughters, I believe the burden of resolving ethical issues does not spring from within culture-specific norms. It lies in each of our hearts and it cuts across race, class, gender, religion, and, may I add, hubris and vanity.


lindsey 05.07.08 at 4:41 am

I’m on board with more philosophy in schools, mainly because I think it develops crucial critical/logical thinking skills that everyone ought to have. I’m just wary that it can be done. Teaching a CMI class is hard, at least harder than I would have anticipated. Even with an undergraduate major in philosophy (focusing on ethics), I had a real tough time teaching a CMI-like course with my French high schoolers. Even with Harry’s help (which was very much appreciated), it took *more* than a knowledge of the arguments to run that class well (and admittedly, it often didn’t go very well). Knowing the material is hard enough, but learning how to effectively lead a discussion, prompt a thoughtful debate, delve deeper than the usual justifications, etc, is not easy. So I’m not sure what would be the most effective way to equip teachers for this type of course (particularly teachers who may not have a strong background in these subjects). Can you really learn by reading an article or book about it? Do you need formal training? Or is it a skill that some people have and others don’t?

This poses a serious problem because I think it would almost be worse to have a poorly taught CMI class than none at all. By poorly taught I include classes where the teacher (perhaps unknowingly) enforces her (or the school’s) particular view on her students (or where the student feels pressured to go along with said view). For example, how would a teacher in a religious high school go about teaching a CMI course without either betraying the belief system of that school or forfeiting her impartiality? Similarly, how does a public high school teacher avoid promoting the more secular humanist agenda (as more supernaturally-inclined world views are usually off limits, or are perceived to be so)?

Maybe the solution is that schools should start recruiting the disillusioned and jobless philosophy phds…


noen 05.07.08 at 6:35 am

Argument against – We don’t know nearly as much about genetics as we think we do. Nor are we able to foresee the future. Therefore we could easily make profound errors that may impact our ability to survive. Entire populations could find themselves in an evolutionary cul-de-sac. Or perhaps susceptible to some unknown disease vector that would run through us like rust through a field of wheat.

Or perhaps not a disease vector but something more subtle. Perhaps millions will lack an ability to think or imagine in certain ways. If there is one thing we know about nature, any vulnerability will be ruthlessly punished.

Argument against – We humans suck at managing bureaucracies, big time. Do we really want the people who brought us the TSA mucking about in our genes? The same folks who recently wouldn’t allow an armless woman to board a flight because she couldn’t provide her fingerprints? We’re going to let those people make decisions about who gets access to what genetic screening or treatments? No thanks.

Argument for – Talk about your radial evolution. People have already explored every imaginable body modification possible and then some. Expect this to only increase. We could easily split into several species once we start really tinkering with our DNA. If we ever do become a star faring species we may need that kind of extreme diversity in order to take full advantage of whatever we may encounter.

Argument for – It’s going to happen anyway. No matter what rules or laws are passed people will take full advantage that technology gives them. The only difference is who gets the benefits. If laws are passed against designer children it will still go on by those who can afford it. It will just be done behind closed doors. This would lead to increased class antagonism or even widespread violence. Therefore it’s in everyone’s interest that such choices be available to as many as possible and distributed as equitably as possible also.


Matthew Kuzma 05.07.08 at 7:18 am

There is no other (apparent) disability which is so widely embraced by those who suffer it.

Actually, I have many disabilities that I’m pretty sure I share with a great many other people, and that are generally widely accepted as being, if not favorable, at least acceptable within normal society. I cannot, for example, breathe underwater. I also can’t navigate in the dark using echolocation, or see the infrared light emitted by warm objects. I also have this problem of being seriously injured by relatively (in a cosmic sense) small forces. Don’t even get me started on all the things I can’t make so merely by wishing for them.


bad Jim 05.07.08 at 7:54 am

Ah, love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits – and then
Remold it nearer to Heart’s Desire!


John Meredith 05.07.08 at 8:42 am

Good stuff. I don’t agree that there is any coherent argument that deafness is not a disability, though. Deaf people may have full and rich lives but they nonetheless permanently lack a distinctive ability that is available to the hearing and are, to that degree, therefore disabled. A hearing person can choose to participate in all the cultural achievements of deafness or , indeed, to become deaf, but that doesn’t work vice versa. If a loving deaf parent really wanted the best for their child (rather than just seeking to narrow that child’s likely choices and degree of independence) they would surely give it the choice to be hearing or deaf. We feel pretty sure, though, that the child, given the choice, would almost certainly consider deafness a disability and opt to hear.


Cyrus Hall 05.07.08 at 9:08 am

RE lindsey-

I sympathize your concern about impartiality on the part of the teacher, but I feel this concern often puts up larger roadblocks than warranted. The concept of impartiality at the college level, while occasionally the cause of much hand wringing, would never stop a course on social topics from being taught. Most teenagers in High School could handle such “biased” courses as well, and could successfully filter out the lessons on thinking from any bias that may slip-in. None of this is to say teachers shouldn’t make a best attempt to remain impartial.

Maybe your real concern is over perceived liability. School districts in the States are all too often sued over questions of “fairness” in their coverage of material, and teaching directly applied philosophy would doubtlessly cause rage and ire amongst many religious conservatives. It’s not a matter of remaining impartial for them: it’s a matter of discussing a morality different than the biblical interpretation. Sad that a countries school system can be held hostage by the fear of litigation from a such a vocal minority.

I’d love to hear suggestions on how to get more philosophical discussion into schools in the States. As an American living in Europe, I’m constantly amazed at how well philosophically equipped people my generation are here.


Alex Gregory 05.07.08 at 9:50 am

“it is very hard to see what complaint the deaf child has in this case. [it's better that he were born with the disability than never born at all]“

I’m sure you’re aware of this, but this line of argument has some very bizarre implications. Failing to preserve environmental resources will lead to different people being born; the argument you present implies that such people would have no complaint against us for leaving them with a wreck of a planet. “They should be pleased that we took the choice that led them to be born at all”.


Dave 05.07.08 at 10:27 am

The trouble with running debates like this over complex and troubling ethical questions is the foreknowledge that in the world beyond the classroom people are busy applying the ‘unethical’ response to such issues all the time, sometimes unnoticed, almost always unpunished, frequently uncondemned. Many people operating within a commercial economy, whether as managers and managed or buyers and sellers, are engaged in f*cking each other over for personal advantage day-in, day-out; and many people in their personal relationships do little better. The effectively explicit norm of modern Western societies is to put your own perceived interests far above and beyond any call to the virtue necessary to take truly ‘ethical’ decisions; while in other societies other equally demanding norms about family honour, etc, point in similar directions when it comes to according, e.g., girl-children status as ethical subjects.

So, to be provocative, my question is this:

Unless you’re prepared to point out that the world in general is, from the point of view of ethics, a truly ghastly place, and that classroom exercises can only have meaning if they encourage students to place themselves so far outside this norm that they will be significantly challenged for the rest of their lives, aren’t you better off skipping the whole thing? Indeed, aren’t you better off doing that in the first place? And if not, why not?


Bob B 05.07.08 at 12:31 pm

I hope that room might be found in this and similar collections for David Hume in 1748 on moral duties:

“All moral duties may be divided into two kinds. The first are those to which men are impelled by a natural instinct … which operates on them, independent of all ideas of obligation, and of all views either to public or private utility. Of this nature are love of children, gratitude to benefactors, pity to the unfortunate. … The second kind of moral duties are such as are not supported by any original instinct of man but are performed entirely from a sense of obligation, when we consider the necessities of human society, and the impossibility of supporting it, if these duties were neglected. …. We shall only observe, before we conclude, that though an appeal to general opinion may justly, in the speculative sciences of metaphysics, natural philosophy, or astronomy, be deemed unfair and inconclusive, yet in all questions with regard to morals, as well as criticism, there is really no other standard, by which any controversy can ever be decided.”


Mo 05.07.08 at 2:05 pm

For the designer children discussion, a good starting point is the film GATTACA.


Picador 05.07.08 at 2:54 pm

c.l. ball:

One item not in there, but worth considering: what is the ethical difference between an Asian family that already has a son and aborts a female fetus in order to have another son, and an American family that has a daughter and aborts a male fetus, in order to have a daughter.

I’m not sure, but I think you meant to write “an American family that has a son and aborts a male fetus, in order to have a daughter”, e.g. in order to have one of each. That’s how I’ve usually heard the problem posed. It also makes the ethical question more interesting, IMO.

I think the answer is that only one case implicates and deepens a broader social problem. It’s comparable to racial profiling: if police stopped cars based on the driver’s race, but did so in an arbitrary pattern (e.g., stop five drivers of one race, then five drivers of another race; or stop black drivers on Mondays and white drivers on Tuesdays; or cops with last names A-L stop whites, M-Z stop blacks), it would still be unfair in any specific case, but it wouldn’t contribute to the general social problem of persecution of blacks.


Mark Haag 05.07.08 at 3:09 pm


I would really like to see a home for discussing issues related to citizenship education and philosophy. I teach Ethics and Contemporary American Society classes at a technical college. It is hard to teach “weighing and considering”. There is a satisfaction that comes with mastering a fact “Socrates was Plato’s teacher”, or marshaling arguments in a debate for a position you already believe in, but the pleasure in examining the most thoughtful arguments on all sides of an issue is-of a different sort. (Perhaps it even will show up differently on an MRI!) There is a deflation that occurs when students learn there are thoughtful arguments on both sides of many issues. Of course, a sense of satisfaction isn’t the only point to consider, but without that, students won’t take this skill out into the democracy. I would be glad to participate in a Citizenship Education discussion board.


lindsey 05.07.08 at 3:53 pm

cyrus hall,

Yes, I think in most cases the problem might not be that a teacher, just as a teacher, couldn’t be impartial enough (one could never be completely, and that’s okay with me)… but it’s a teacher within a certain school that may not be able to teach the course fairly. This would most certainly be true in some of the private Christian schools I am familiar with (one Lutheran, one Evangelical Protestant), and I also think it would be true in a public school. Public schools have to tip toe around controversy just as much, lest they offend sensitive parents (on all parts of the spectrum). So there needs to be a solid case that these things are important for students to learn (which they are), and yes some parents aren’t going to like it (but hey, isn’t schooling supposed to give children a broader perspective than the one they receive at home?). So I think in most cases I’m talking about the teacher whose hands are tied by the school, but of course I’m sure there would be dogmatic teachers in their own right too.

Re: lack of impartiality in universities. I actually am concerned about this too, but I guess I give more credit to the college level student for being able to navigate around biases than I do the high schooler. When I was in high school, and maybe this is just me, I was much more likely to trust the teacher and her authority. In university, while that was partially true, I was more likely to see what was personal opinion and what was not. Part of that comes with age and experience in a school setting, something that I’m afraid not enough high schoolers would have. If they didn’t, then a CMI course could easily become propaganda for whatever side of the argument the school or teacher wanted to promote. And that would not be a good thing.


Nick L 05.07.08 at 4:57 pm

“Furthermore, it is very hard to see what complaint the deaf child has in this case. If his mothers had not selected that donor he (the deaf child) would never have been born. He would never have existed. Surely it is better for her that she is alive than that she had never been alive. We could only deny this if we thought that the life of someone who was profoundly deaf was not worth living, which is obviously false.”

This argument is superficially persuasive, but false. A person is neither made better or worse off by being brought into existence. The quality of a nonexistent person’s life isn’t ‘zero’. There is a category error being made: a nonexistent person doesn’t have a quality of life, or indeed any attributes whatsoever. It’s therefore meaningless to say that a person is made better off through existing, even if they have a decent life. This confusion is made in writing on evironmental and generational ethics as well.


noen 05.07.08 at 5:20 pm

I’d love to hear suggestions on how to get more philosophical discussion into schools in the States.

What if we just talked to them?

You know, hire smart people, throw the desks out of the room and then just sit around and talk. Don’t bring in pillows, some comfy chairs would been fine. I know I know, it’s too DFH-ish for many school systems and there would have to be rules and a syllabus of sorts. The teacher would also need to have some experience in group dynamics.

For some reason we seem to think that we only learn through our successes and not our failures. This would be a wonderful chance to fail. In my opinion there are way too many people who have never failed.

Back on topic though, you will never be permitted to teach philosophy in any meaningful manner in US public schools because it would be a threat to religion. You think the culture wars are bad now just try this on a national scale. It would get very ugly very fast.


Dan Simon 05.07.08 at 6:25 pm

Before you address the issue of how to teach controversial issues to high schoolers, perhaps you could address the issue of whether to teach controversial issues to high schoolers. In my opinion, there’s plenty of well-understood, non-controversial material to teach that challenges students and develops a wide array of intellectual skills, without incurring all the risks associated with controversial topics. (And if there isn’t, then I would argue that the project of public education is doomed to begin with.)

I believe in a sort of Hippocratic Oath equivalent for teaching: first, do no harm–that is, don’t ever mislead children. Teaching controversial topics just increases the risk that children will be misled, to no particularly important good effect that I can think of.


Aulus Gellius 05.07.08 at 7:20 pm

I think if you think about argument B4, it reveals that some of your arguments for A are actually only valid as arguments for C. E.g., you say, “We allow them [parents] to choose what sort of schooling their children get,” but actually, we only allow them to choose within a limited range. They are not allowed to dispense with schooling altogether, or leave out certain vital subjects. The same holds, I think, for most parts of child-raising: we allow parents to choose their kids’ diet, religious practices, friends, etc., up to a certain age and within certain limits. It’s hard to see how you draw from that that we should allow parents unlimited control of their kids’ genes.

Also, arguments about freedom only answer the legal question: it might be worth separately discussing whether a parent should, if given the legal option, try to control his or her child’s genes.


Aulus Gellius 05.07.08 at 7:23 pm

dan simon: of course, it depends what you call controversial. If you want to avoid any topics on which there’s widespread disagreement, I don’t see how you can have any history or literature classes, for example; at least, not any good ones.


harry b 05.07.08 at 10:42 pm

Mr Gradgrind/Dan — what, you think that careful thinking about moral questions should be restricted to those lucky enough to have parents and neighbors who induct them into that practice, and those who go to Catholic schools? Its a view, I suppose. I’m glad my teachers didn’t have it.


Deliasmith 05.08.08 at 12:01 am

Not, or not only to be provocative, but why teach ethics, or citizenship, or contemporary moral issues in high school at all?

Apart from the effect on the children, and I’d bet there are plenty of cases of damage inflicted by inadequate or perverse teachers and teaching, consider the quandary of a teacher who genuinely doesn’t care about, or have anything to say on, CMIs.

On Sunday, at a tense and joyous affair at the Britannia Stadium, I met an old school friend: a fine mathematician who recently checked out of a very interesting and rewarding job to study for a PGCE with a view to becoming a maths teacher, motivated by a genuine desire to ‘put something back’. He has chucked the PGCE because of the requirement to produce essays on citizenship and similar topics of absolutely no interest, or use, to him personally or professionally.

Discussing our common school school experience we agreed that we still feel a pulse of rage when reflecting on the brainless Toryism, unreflective smugness and pew-renting morality dispensed by the assorted humbugs, drones, Conservatives, evangelical Christians and deadbeats who thought it their duty, or right, to issue instruction on such matters at our provincial grammar school. My great comfort is the realisation that the damage done to the teachers was greater than that suffered by we pupils: a mere two or three years of unchallenged pontificating surely disfigured their sensibilities so deeply as to render them repulsive in the eyes of neighbours, spouses and children. I certainly hope so.


Deliasmith 05.08.08 at 12:09 am

And another thing – aulus gellius @ 20: “We do not allow …”

school is not compulsory


Dan Simon 05.08.08 at 12:46 am

Mr Gradgrind/Dan–what, you think that careful thinking about moral questions should be restricted to those lucky enough to have parents and neighbors who induct them into that practice, and those who go to Catholic schools?

Short, equally snarky answer: Mr. Pecksniff/Harry–What, you think careful thinking about moral questions is restricted to those lucky enough to have brilliant moral philosophers like you explain controversial issues to them?

Longer, more decorous answer: thinking carefully about moral questions is certainly an important skill. The problem is that there is no societal consensus regarding the nature of this skill, or even regarding the set of people qualified to opine on that question. In the absence of such a consensus, we are left with the options of (1) teaching all versions of this skill with a non-negligible constituency; (2) Selecting some subset of these based on some set of criteria; or (3) giving up on the project entirely.

Option (1) (teaching “comparative morality”) might be feasible, but would produce a syllabus that looks nothing at all like yours. Moreover, I doubt that either of us would consider that syllabus to be of much value to students. Option (2) simply reproduces the original problem, since there is no consensus regarding the correct criteria. Option (3) has the advantage of freeing class time for topics that are a matter of consensus, and whose value to students we can therefore have more confidence in. And it further frees students from studying forms of moral reasoning that they, and possibly most of society–perhaps nearly everyone, someday soon–considers invalid and worthless. To me, that makes it clearly preferable to the other two.


harry b 05.08.08 at 1:00 am

dan — yes, I was being snarky, and apologise.

Though my comment did strictly speaking imply the falsehood of the opinion your snarky reply attributed to me.

I think we disagree about the purposes of education and schooling, probably. But, and this is a sort of response to Lindsey to, what I am suggesting is developing a resource for people who either (in the case of the UK) are required to teach these things and don’t know how to or (in numerous other cases) already teach these things and would like to do it better (and are not going to accept anything I provide as definitive but are going to reflect on it).

I will add that giving up on teaching thinking about controversial moral questions requires giving up teaching history, literature, anything about religion…Well, you could teach those things without teaching thinking about controversial moral questions, but not much learning would go on.

I agree that doing this well is hard, and carries various risks. But like many activities it takes a long time to master it. Most math teachers don’t get a lot of success their first year (rule of thumb — the really good teachers start to get to be good in their 4th year or so, as a rough rule).


vivian 05.08.08 at 1:32 am

But we do teach some hard moral issues in school already, as a guide for teaching the harder ones: history is full of them: slavery, suffrage, collective punishment, war, poverty, superstition. As are more amorphous lessons like “when is it tattling and when is it responsible appeal to an adult” or “When is it cooperating and when copying.” I wonder how to explain things in, say, “great literature” that are (or should be) unacceptable today: bigotry, rape, inquisitions, etc. The hardest are the ones we have to live every day, or when called upon to explain the indefensible.

The intellectual hard cases in the post could be coparatively easy: here is something that affects people’s lives tremendously, that has become so polarized that most people want it made a matter of law, either prohibiting X or carving out a permission for X free from interference. Here are some arguments on both sides. An un-confident teacher wouldn’t even need to allow much in-class argument (or agreement) – although I’d probably prefer one that did. (A friend, raised Jehovah’s Witness got pretty tired of saying in high school “actually parents do love their kids, which is why they cannot allow something as wrong as blood transfusions.”) Sure in the worst places it would go horribly wrong for the local-iconoclast, but then, presumably it already is pretty bad there.


Dave 05.08.08 at 9:31 am

“hard moral issues in school already, as a guide for teaching the harder ones: history is full of them: slavery, suffrage, collective punishment, war, poverty, superstition”

None of those issues, I’d bet a significant sum on, is EVER taught as if there were really two equally-plausible sides to be debated… [Except maybe poverty?? But then again, in the USA at least, probably not... Actually, probably DIFFERENT, equally monolithic views in US and UK/Europe...]


Sam C 05.08.08 at 10:02 am

There’s a distinction being elided here, between (1) teaching multiple, conflicting moral claims about controversial issues (which seems to be what Dan Simon is talking about), and (2) teaching the important skill of thinking rationally about such conflicts (which seems to be what Harry B is talking about). Teaching the skill is not the same thing as endorsing one or other of the conflicting claims.


vivian 05.09.08 at 12:22 am

None of those issues, I’d bet a significant sum on, is EVER taught as if there were really two equally-plausible sides to be debated Right, Dave, it’s hard because you have to explain how deeply invested one side of the argument is in something that pretty much everyone in the room abhors. You have to make it live, without making it attractive. Now that’s not a guide for teaching about abortion/evolution/capital punishment, but if you can manage it, it’s a guide for how a teacher can have deeply held views on a subject, and not advocate for those views while remaining true to them. And if you can’t containing the controversy within a safe classroom discussion (because of passions or politics) then explain that, lay out some critical-thinking on both sides, and hope that some of the kids will learn from that imperfect example. Or, as Sam says, teach/practice the skills on safer topics, sort of like a flight simulator.


Dave 05.09.08 at 11:57 am

I’m sure that approach has its merits, but given that the UK, for example, has a ‘citizenship curriculum’ dedicated to the [impeccably liberal] cause of proving that one one side on all those issues is right, I will still stick to my basic point that such issues are in fact taught not as ‘hard cases’ at all, but as essentially-resolved examples of the virtues of a particular viewpoint.

It’s not about the teacher having views, it’s about those views already being hard-coded into the context. Trying to explain why some people historically thought slavery was acceptable, e.g., is a way away from asking students to consider if it actually IS…. or if women actually shouldn’t be allowed to vote, etc etc.

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