Fostering Democracy By Encouraging the Discussion of Controversial Issues in School

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the right to engage in free speech. Why? Our Founding Fathers apparently thought it was important to protect the right to speak freely without fear of consequence. One could infer, then, that our Founding Fathers firmly believed that even their greatest critics deserved the right and freedom to dissent.

Throughout history, critical changes have been secured because individuals spoke out against injustices that were carried out by our government. Slavery was once legal. Racial segregation was once legal. Women once lacked the right to be identified as a person for the purposes of the law. Dissenting voices, free to speak out against perceived injustices, shed light on important issues, gathered support, and evoked changes to the law. Dissent and the right to speak freely are critical to the function of a democratic nation.

Unfortunately, free speech is being hampered in society. There is perhaps no better evidence of this than our public schools. Teachers are demonstrably afraid of discussing controversial issues with students, for fear of retribution from local parents and the board of education. Instead, teachers shy away from current events and politically-sensitive topics and gear discussions toward sanitized and white-washed topics. And the fact that most students lack access to quality Civics education only aggravates the problem.

Discussing Current Events in School

As a result, students are not being given the opportunity to learn about open discourse, intelligent debate, and diversity of opinion. Public school needs to be a place where students have the freedom to openly discuss the issues that are present in society. Open discussions, including those about controversial or difficult topics, are a First Amendment right. Students must be introduced to the idea of free speech and dissent in the classroom.

Policies and Events Affect Us Differently

Students must be able to see how different policies and events affect their peers differently. The best way to highlight these differences is by discussing the hard issues and hearing different takes on those issues, first-hand. White students should know how their black classmates feel about the epidemic of police brutality and gunning down of black Americans. Students who identify as heterosexual should know how their LGBT classmates are affected by discriminatory government policies. Male students should know how the oppressive policies and rules adversely affect their female classmates.

If we are not adversely impacted by a law or policy we may not know its true consequences. While a law or regulation may be neutral toward you, it may be a devastating blow to others. Discussing hot topics and current events can help to shed light and varying perspectives on important issues. These discussions will not only help to foster critical thinking skills, but also educate students about our truly diverse and complex society.

Discussing Opposing Viewpoints

Just because students are engaged in discussions about current events does not mean that their opinions will coexist peacefully. If we hold a strong belief about something, we are more inclined to go to great lengths to protect it. The right to hold a dissenting opinion and speak freely about it does not mean that we should harm or put others down in the process of expressing it. Fostering important conversations in the classroom can teach students how to approach differences of opinion with an open mind and respect.

Actively listening to dissenting opinions is just as important as free speech. Students can learn to listen, digest information, consider alternative opinions, and decide where they stand on an issue. If, after meaningful discussion, a student is not persuaded by other viewpoints, they are free to continue voicing their own opinion. More often than not, however, listening to others can help us to form a better and more-reasoned opinion on a matter.

Classroom Discussions as a Foundation for Democratic Discourse

As a democracy, we rely on the input of an informed and well-intentioned society. Public school classrooms are the perfect place to not only teach our students, but to expose them to controversial issues. This exposure can help to create a well-rounded individual who is equipped with the tools that are necessary to be productive members of society. Dissent is key to democracy. However, dissent can only be effective if it grounded in morals and an understanding of our diverse community.

Our schools should embrace discussions of current events and allow students to find their voice. After all, they have the right to express that voice freely without fear of retribution. If we do not exercise this right, we may be doomed to lose it.