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Teaching controversial issues:
A four-step classroom strategy for clear thinking on controversial issues
Home > Step 2: What are the arguments?
Step 2: What are the arguments?
Once students have determined what the issue is about or the nature of the controversy, they consider the arguments supporting the various positions on the issue. The key concern here is determining just what is being said and whether there is adequate support for the claims being made. This step is largely analytical in that it calls for some determination of the content of an argument. It is also judgmental to a degree. At this step, students can begin judging the validity of a position on a controversial issue. If students have determined that the controversy surrounding an issue involves information, then they should ask questions about the information available or provided. Is there adequate information? Are the claims in the information accurate? Is the information appropriate to the issue? Are the sources primary or secondary? In general, are the conclusions presented in the argument reasonable, given the information?
Most controversial issues are about values, and there are critical questions students can ask about the values stated or employed in an argument. Specifically, what criteria are being used to make a judgment? In general there are two: moral and prudential. Moral criteria for judgment are based on a concern for how all people will be affected. Prudential criteria are concerned mainly with how my group or I will be affected.
Other questions students can use to test the acceptability of values claims are well known and universal in application: Would you like that done to you? What if everybody did that? Are there any situations where you would feel different or disagree with this value? These questions give students a set of criteria for making judgments that can take them beyond relativism and, because of their universal application, help them reflect on the validity of dogmatic positions.
If the controversy involves definitions, meanings, or concepts, then students should try to determine if the arguments presented use meanings or definitions that are clear. Also they should test to see if meanings are used consistently or if they are appropriate and used in a proper context.
Afghanistan and the question of Canada’s role does raise the moral question of what Canada ought to do. The response to the question of whether or not our role there is prudential or moral will likely elicit a quick decision that it is a moral presence where there is little prudential benefit. On this basis Canada looks like it may be doing the “right” thing. But students might ask to what extent a combat mission in Afghanistan actually serves the prudential interests of the military and commercial interests that benefit from military engagement. They might also reflect on how they might feel if they lived in the country and had this military presence happening to them. There are a range of views on this in Afghanistan and students would be well advised to know those before they decided what the “right” thing to do is.