Teaching Controversial History: Four Moves

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 responsibility 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?

2. Create a community of reason.

Students often respond very well to being asked to bear the responsibility of reasoning together. This can mean a lot of different things, and there are a lot of different ways to do it. But fundamentally, it makes inviting students to take responsibility for their own opinions in conversation with the opinions of other people inside and outside the classroom.

This is not only a matter of encouraging students to engage in rational reflection and analysis, though it is that. It’s also a matter of building lateral trust. Students need to know that they can engage in a shared project, aimed at an objective truth (or a workable intersubjectivity), even when they disagree. They need that trust in order to let down their defenses enough to change their minds when it’s appropriate.

(I’m aware, of course, that I’m idealizing what happens in classrooms. Nevertheless, I have seen actual communities of reason form.)

This is part of my alternative, by the way, to models of student life based on the concept of “viewpoint diversity.” Rather than treat ideological systems as immutable personal characteristics, we need to create the conditions for shared projects of reasoning toward improved understandings of reality.

We should not be so afraid of groupthink that we run away from the very ideal of shared truth.

But how can we pursue that ideal?

3. Show, don’t tell. (Well, OK, show and tell.)

No matter how firmly established a fact or historical interpretation is, merely asserting your expertise is unlikely to persuade a skeptical student to believe it. In general—although addressing a full-blown conspiracy theory poses special problems—it is more persuasive for us to talk about the evidence and the reasoning processes behind it.

This is not to say that “showing your work” will immediately convince a skeptical student. This is why it’s also important to show our work when we aren’t advancing controversial claims.

Just like building a community of reason, building up students’ trust in the instructor’s reasoning is a process that should begin long before the most controversial topics are examined.

Throughout a course, I think, it’s a good idea for the instructor to model a combination of thoughtfulness, reasonable withholding of judgment when evidence is equivocal, relying on both primary and secondary sources for guidance in forming tentative judgments, and deferring to legitimate expertise when independent examination of the evidence isn’t practical.

And we should show students plenty of primary sources.

This doesn’t mean that every historical claim in the classroom must be accompanied by a footnote. That wouldn’t be practical. But by stopping to show our work when it is practical, in selected cases, we can give students confidence in the rest of our historical judgments. With that in mind, let’s turn to the final move.

4. Let meaning emerge from complicated data.

Although I don’t believe in viewpoint diversity, I do believe in source diversity: presenting students with sources (both primary and secondary) that come from a variety of perspectives.

Partly this is important because presenting students with complicated data is the best way to engage their imaginations and get good conversations going. It’s also important because it’s the way many students will first see people like them represented in history as agents and subjects.

But a third reason to present students with diverse and complicated sources is even more basic: It’s the only way for students to grasp that our historical accounts are always imperfect attempts to understand large, complex, and messy human communities—that the past is bigger than any history, including a true one.

Why does this especially matter for teaching controversial historical topics? It matters because students need to understand the difference between being taught a necessarily incomplete history and being taught a lie.

Intuitively, skeptical students are looking for inconsistencies in our historical accounts. In extreme cases, this tendency—in an age of information abundance—leads to conspiracy theories, as clever and independent-minded people try to find accounts of reality that explain all the random noise of human life, and which also explain why mainstream accounts left the noise out.

What we need to do is show students that histories are always approximations that can be more or less true, but which will never capture the full richness of human life—and that this is perfectly OK. We need to help students develop distress tolerance for the social noise of the past.

The best way I know to do this, in fact, is to invite students to confront head-on some of the exceptions to the historical generalizations we want to make. Ask them to explain why someone dissented from the community, or remembered an event a different way, or didn’t behave the way our historical accounts would seem to predict. Ask them to propose ideas for what we should do with a piece of data that doesn’t quite fit the rest. Ask them how to make sense of a modern debate among scholars.

In other words: Effective teachers harness the skeptical student’s innate meaning-making drive instead of trying to fight it.

I can’t claim that those four moves always work. Teaching isn’t like that. But when I have effectively taught controversial topics in ways that skeptical students could hear, these moves, however idealized my description is here, were among the factors that allowed the teaching to work.