top of page

Wary of discussing controversial topics?

Curriculum choices are ethical decisions that have moral implications. These become apparent every time there’s a debate about, for example, migration, atheism, global warming or the Israel – Palestine conflict. What can be said or not said in such debates? Should we even try to deal with contentious and controversial topics?

And what about things like literary and historical texts? What should be studied in the English literature curriculum or what history should we teach and leave out? Should the novels, plays or textbooks children read reflect a ‘national canon’ or an ‘international perspective’? Should they have a balance of playwrights and historians; female and male; white and minority ethnic? Should they include texts that reflect wide cultural diversity? Should they include for example, Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ or Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’?

It’s not just subjects like English literature or history that must grapple with moral dilemmas. Imagine a science department that offered ‘intelligent design’ as part of its curriculum. Imagine a history department that included ‘Holocaust denial’ as a legitimate form of historical analysis. I’m not saying one shouldn’t consider or even teach about such contentious or controversial topics under any circumstances, of course not. But the context in which such teaching takes place - the age, maturity and intellectual capacity of the pupils, the level of analysis and criticism – are all clearly ethical decisions with moral implications.

Some things are appropriate for teaching ‘broad brush’ at primary schools, others for detailed knowledge and research at universities.

I met a teacher recently who said she was uncomfortable about teaching Romeo and Juliet to a student whose recent mental health had led her to consider committing suicide. I soon met another young woman, a conservative Muslim as it happens, who found the teaching of the same play to be both a liberating and an enlightening experience for the teenage girls she taught at her school grappling, as some of them were, with issues of ‘arranged’ and ‘forced’ marriage in their community.

I greatly value mutual respect, tolerance and free speech as fundamental values (though there are, in my view, legitimate caveats in relation to abuse, threats and incitement) but I do not advocate moral relativism where everyone is assumed to have a justifiable moral standpoint by virtue of having ‘a different opinion’.

Do you want to engage your students in debates about migration, the existence of God or Israel and Palestine? Go ahead. We do not have to respect ideas, but we have to respect people.

This is an extract from Alan Newland’s book: ‘Becoming a Teacher – the legal, ethical and moral implications of entering society’s most fundamental profession’ – available with a 20% discount with the code ‘becoming20’

bottom of page