Teaching Controversial History: Four Moves

tags: teaching history

Jonathan Wilson is a historian and humanities educator. 

Inspired by some recent conversations and experiences, I have been thinking about how I approach the task of teaching controversial topics.

Much of my approach, I think, is directly inspired by having been a fairly prickly kind of student myself. I still see a lot of myself in students who aren’t prepared to buy what their instructors are hoping to sell. (Let’s assume, for the sake of simplicity, that we instructors are correct, though of course that is not universally the case.)

I think I can reduce my approach to four basic instructional moves. These moves strike me as both pragmatic and principled; I make these moves because they tend to work, but they work because they’re the morally right thing to do anyway.

1. Respect the intellectual autonomy of the student—even when they’re mistaken.

Here is the axiom I have tried to work by, which I first formulated in words about five years ago: People don’t change each other’s minds. Instead, people change their own minds with tools other people provide.

This statement probably varies in its level of truth. It may not be true at all for young children. And some adults are far more impressionable than others. However, it seems to hold up well as a general principle when you’re dealing with older children and fully grown students.

In any case, nobody has the power to force another adult to change their mind. Opinions don’t work that way. Not even when they’re “opinions” that look an awful lot like facts or falsehoods.

Here, I think of the fable of the wind and the sun. In this parable, the wind and the sun argue about which of them is more powerful. Looking down from the sky, they select a traveler wearing a cloak as an unwitting subject for a competition.

You may remember what happens. First, the wind blows a ferocious gale, trying to tear the traveler’s cloak away. But the man only wraps his cloak around himself more tightly against the cold. Then the sun, beaming benevolently, shines down and gently warms the traveler. After a while, the man removes the cloak himself. The sun wins.

A student changing their mind is like that traveler removing his cloak. It happens not because of the violence of external pressure but because the student feels the reason to change—feels it from the inside.

But how can the student be encouraged to draw better conclusions? What does the sunshine in this analogy represent?

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