Why Discussing Controversial Issues is Part of Educating Engaged Democratic Citizens

Tom Misco with students

James M. Loy, Miami University

Across the nation, controversial issues are making new headlines every day.

These issues, on a variety of fronts, are describing the realities of a society facing increasingly polarized ideological divides, the eruption of political and social unrest, and a growing uncertainty of how to meet the challenges ahead.

Controversial issues can be difficult to discuss, especially when they concern moral and ethical matters related to race, injustice, and personal freedom.

However, Thomas Misco, a Miami University professor of social studies education, argues that teaching about and engaging in such conversations is critical for any democratic society that hopes to produce civically engaged citizens who can embrace diversity, work toward social change, and defend fundamental human rights.

During a recent conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, Misco spoke about the virtues of introducing controversial issues into K-12 classrooms, the role of teachers as democratic citizenship educators, the original purpose of social studies education, and more.

Why are discussions around controversial issues crucial for a democratic education? What benefits do they bring to students, and to society?

Tom MIscoMisco: So, I really have to go back to the 1920s and 30s. That's when the field of social studies education came into being. The overall purpose of social studies education is very different from, say, history education, or political science education. Social studies was a U.S. invention to bring about democratic citizenship education.

The idea was that grades K-10 would learn all the social science and humanities content. Then, the 11th and 12th grades would have a two-year course called “The Problems of Democracy,” where students would tackle current day issues and challenges. And those problems, of course, were similar problems to what our society faces today. And most of the time, when you have a problem, that means you have disagreements about the problem. That means you have different ideas and voices, and that means, by its very nature, it’s controversial.

So the intention was to use the past to ultimately inform making decisions about the present and the future. Unfortunately, that approach to social studies largely disappeared. In a lot of middle schools and high schools, you now find courses called U.S. History, World History. Economics, and U.S. Government. Many of those are not directed towards the present or the future.

So issues that were inherently controversial were used to understand and solve social problems going forward.

Right. The purpose of social studies education is to help future citizens make informed and reasoned decisions for the common good, within a multicultural democratic society, situated within their interdependent world. It's not just making decisions for yourself.

And when we talk about all these connections, we're really talking about ethics. Ethics is about human relations in action. How people make decisions that ultimately affect other people, those are ethical decisions. And, typically, when you have an ethical decision that needs to be made, that's a controversial issue because people have different ideas of what constitutes goodness, badness, rightness, wrongness.

So when talking about controversial issues, and making decisions about them, that's at the heart of ethics, of justice, of democratic citizenship education. It's the gravitational center, I would argue, of what we do in social studies, and what the purpose of school is overall.

In a recent publication, you quoted John Dewey saying, “There's no thought that is so dangerous as a forbidden thought.” But we live in a very polarized society now. So are some issues just too controversial for the classroom?

That's a great question. Sometimes teachers don't talk about some issues, and some aren't even controversial. For example, if you think of the impeachment proceedings from some weeks ago. That's not controversial. That's what was happening in our government at a particular time. But some teachers were reluctant to engage students in that topic because they said it's too political. Well, that's your job. It's the job of the social studies educator to engage students in political things that are happening. And it doesn't mean that you have to disclose your particular viewpoint. But students need to understand what's happening, why it's happening, and make their own determinations of what they think should happen.

If they don't have that space in public school, where else will they have it? That's really going back to that Dewey quote, that unwholesome alley or corner with some unscrupulous propagandist. That's ultimately what happens if we don't have meaningful social studies education, and opportunities for students to talk about meaningful issues.

Is there a danger of teachers letting their own values show? Should they stay neutral, or try not to persuade students one way or another?

There are a couple legitimate schools of thought on this. Some arguments are that teachers should disclose their beliefs, and recognize that they are human beings like everybody else. Then there are different viewpoints that say, no, you shouldn't disclose.

Both are legitimate approaches. But all my students recognize the importance of teaching about controversial issues. They recognize how engaging and important they are for the future of our democratic society. They do a lot of reading, and come up with rationales to teach about controversial issues in their future classrooms.

Having that rationale is important. If a teacher doesn't have a rationale and a philosophical purpose for why they're addressing controversial issues, then they won't. So the most important thing we can do, in terms of teacher education, is help students develop their rationale based on research, based on evidence. So when they do enter the classroom, they have this philosophical rationale and purpose.

Going back to how our current cultural and political climate seems more divided than ever. On one hand, it seems like this might be the most important time to discuss controversial issues. But, paradoxically, it may also be the most difficult time to do.

So how can we overcome these barriers? Whether it's a fear of challenging certain views? Or teachers who might fear pushback from administrators, or parents, or even other teachers?

Certainly there are controversial issues that aren't related to social studies education. Some might not fit. But most of them do because they are connected to the Constitution. If you can connect any issue to Supreme Court cases, or the Constitution, you have a grounding. You're not going to get electrocuted because you're grounded by these bedrock principles, documents, and beliefs. It's easier to defend yourself against any critical colleagues, or administrators, or parents, who might ask why you’re talking about this? Having that grounding certainly helps.

Also, I go back to rationale. Teachers need to recognize that, as a social studies educator, the gravitational center of their job is to address these issues. Yeah, it's not easy. But how do we ensure that students, who might be getting all of their information from a particular part of the spectrum, are exposed to different perspectives?

As teachers, we need to ensure that the classroom is a marketplace of ideas, and that from grades K-12, students have experience negotiating all these different viewpoints, beliefs, opinions, and data, so that all decisions are made on the best available evidence.

Could this also be a way to help people learn how to navigate fake news? Which is another big problem today.

That's right. I would argue that a real social studies class should include a focus on epistemology, and how do we know what is truth? How do we negotiate what other people claim to be truth? How do we know what we know? And then proceeding with these different issues.

How can teachers or parents approach these conversations with children of different ages? If, say, they have elementary school-aged children, versus middle or high school students?

People might say, well, elementary school children are too young to confront controversial issues. Not at all. Because they confront controversy all the time. For example, the current situation with the coronavirus.

We have this tension that exists throughout almost all social studies content. It’s the tension between freedom and control. We cherish our freedom and our liberty to do as we please. But that doesn't mean you can run a stop sign, for example. So there are certain elements of society that control our behavior for the benefit of the common good, and this is just another example. It’s more extreme, of course. But to what extent do I need to isolate myself, and not do the things I want to do, or have done in the past, for the greater good?

So introducing children early on to this concept of freedom and control, it's in their everyday life. They don't see it as a controversial issue. They see it as something they need to think about and negotiate on a daily basis.

It does seem like current events, especially today, would make perfect segues into discussions around controversial issues with kids. Because it's just what's going on around them.

That's right. Current events and, more importantly, future oriented events, that's where the action is for citizenship education. We use the past, and the social sciences and humanities, to understand the present. But then, we're just halfway done.

It's through our understanding of the present, and through our normative ideas about morality and about justice, that can inform: How should we then proceed? How do we move forward? What decisions should be made with a common good in mind?

What are you currently working now, and what would you like to see happen in this field going forward?

I've been looking at how social studies is employed and understood in U.S. territories. So I've done some studies in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and I’m currently working on Puerto Rico, and then the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa after that.

I’m also working on a book for a high school audience that goes back to the 1930s, and looks at the current problems of democracy. It’s about trying to bring back the halcyon days of social studies, to focus on the present, and the future, and the problems that we as a society need to remediate with an eye towards justice. That's really what social studies is all about.