How to Teach Successfully in Today’s Educational Battlegrounds

Posted on July 27, 2021


Okay, here’s a lesson we all need to hear. As so many things that pop into this column, I borrowed it from someone else, this time from a bright and imaginative person who teaches at Duke in Durham, N. C. and surprised me just about totally. Duke is heads over heels into the woke frame of mind, but one prof described a way of reaching students that overrides politics, offenses, and general student angst about their world in a classroom experience that I wish I’d thought of years ago.

What he described is not only for teachers and profs but also for college-age students to help them survive in the cacophony of ideas and shouts and insults that pass off in today’s higher education for education.

Let me say something upfront that is so brazenly common as to easily win me today’s “Simpleton of the Day” Award. Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders; teach them and they will teach the next generation of teachers all the way from kindergarten through graduate programs.

So, you are wondering, what is this about? I like to offer solutions whenever I criticize something or somebody and this professor recently has been teaching in a way so simple that one has to thunk one’s head and say or think, “why didn’t I think of that!”

John Rose teaches ethics and Christian theology and in some of his classes, like “Conservatism,” and “Political Polarization” he requires his students “to engage with all sides of today’s hottest political issues.” So far, so good. Any one of us can do that.

But as Rose wrote in a recent article in the WSJ, there’s a catch, “true engagement, though, requires honesty. In a survey of one of his classes this spring, “68% told me they self-censor on certain political topics even around good friends.” That includes both conservative and liberals.

One student confessed honestly, “As a Duke student, it is difficult to be both a liberal and a Zionist,” and another remarked, “Although I support most BLM ideas, I do not feel that I can have any conversation that even slightly criticizes the movement.” So, to stop “self-censoring, a few agreed-on classroom principles are necessary,” observed Rose.

On the first day, “I tell students that no one will be canceled, meaning no social or professional penalties for students resulting from things they say inside the class.”

Rose adds, “if you believe in policing your fellow students, I say, you’re in the wrong room. I insist that goodwill should always be assumed, and that all opinions can be voiced, provided they are offered in the spirit of humility and charity.”

Then Rose adds, “I give students a chance to talk about the fact that they can no longer talk. I let them share their anxieties about being socially or professionally penalized for dissenting. What students discover is that they are not alone in their misgivings.”

And then the best part. “Having now run,” Rose writes, “the experiment with 300 undergraduates, I no longer wonder what would happen if students felt safe enough to come out of their shells. They flourish. In one class, my students had a serious but respectful discussion of critical race theory…. on a different day, they spoke up for all positions on abortion. When a liberal student mentioned this to a friend outside class, she was met with disbelief: ‘Let me get this straight,” her buddy commented, ‘real Duke students in an actual class were discussing abortion and some of them actually admitted to being pro-life?’ For my student’s part,” continued Rose, “she was no longer shocked the conversation had taken place, nor scandalized at the views of her classmates.”

Then the real shocker. “Not long after Jan. 6, I asked my students how many of them had a family member or friend who voted for Donald Trump. In a class of 56, 50 hands went up. I then asked them to keep their hands up if they thought this person’s vote was motivated by anything unsavory—say, sexism or racism. Every hand but two went down.”

“I could see that students were surprised,” noted Rose. “Turns out, their Trump-supporting cousin wasn’t the exception. When you actually know others, they aren’t an abstraction onto which you can project your own political narratives. The same is true in the classroom.”

“On the last day of class this term,” wrote Rose, “several of my students thanked their counterparts for the gift of civil disagreement. Students told me of unlikely new friendships made. Some existing friendships, previously strained by political differences, were mended. All of this should give hope to those worried that polarization has made dialogue impossible in the classroom. Not only is it possible, it’s what students pine for.”

The lesson is clear. Restore a sense of civility in classrooms devoted to modern issues. Those teaching history, the social sciences, and humanities at all levels of education, can do the same. Rose reminded hardline Progressives that the tradition of true liberalism is to broaden the welcome to all, not just those thinking like you.

Then Rose addressed conservatives as well: “don’t write off the modern university; in continuing to support it, you’ll uphold your own tradition’s commitment to passing down wisdom,” and I would add the experiences that are the building blocks of wisdom.

Rose adds a bit of avuncular advice as well. I especially liked his last sentence. “Both sides should support efforts within universities that promote civil discourse. We’ll all be happier about the state of the country if we do. After all, as they say, what starts on campus doesn’t stay on campus.”

Mr. Rose is associate director of the Arete Initiative at Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics

Published as “How to teach successfully in today’s educational battlegrounds,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday July 4, 2021