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Teaching controversial issues:
A four-step classroom strategy for clear thinking on controversial issues
Home > Step 3: What is assumed?
Step 3: What is assumed?
Once students have considered the arguments in an issue, the critical question becomes what are the assumptions or what is taken as self-evident in the presentation of arguments. It is at this stage that crucial matters of principle are employed to determine the validity of a position.
This framework or process has at its heart a fundamentally important aspect: that is that there is no values’ relativity.
It is not true that any opinion, position, or point of view is acceptable or legitimate. If assumptions taken to justify an argument are based in prejudice, if the attitudes behind arguments are ethnocentric, racist, or parochial, then the assumptions are grounds for criticism and reduce the legitimacy of an argument. A variation of this in Afghanistan could be the notion that the people there are violence-prone or incapable of self-governance. The question for students to pose is what are the assumptions behind such arguments? Is it based on a prejudice or on some other attitude contrary to universally held human values such as those set out in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights?
A second element students can use to evaluate assumptions or what is behind an argument is the voice of the argument. Who is saying this? Insiders or outsiders? Insiders may have particular information and interests that could give an argument a certain shape or orientation. If the voice is that of an outsider, do they know the issue or is being an outsider an advantage in this case since they have no special interest? Often the assumptions behind an argument can best be tested by hearing views of both insiders and outsiders. In Afghanistan information is provided by the military. Are they “insiders?” Do they have a particular interest to protect or advance? What about NGOs, often their information is contrary to military information? What are their interests? Are they “insiders” or “outsiders?”
Once the arguments have been analyzed and the assumptions scrutinized, the final step has to do with how the issue or the arguments pertaining to it are presented or manipulated. The final question in the process then tries to help students judge the quality of the information they are receiving.