Room for Debate: When controversy comes to class

Art: Susan Ogilvie

A Catholic high school where I once taught had a longstanding Friday tradition of playing songs over the public-address system as students changed classes. The ground rules that governed our Friday entertainment were clear: only appropriate music was allowed and only seniors had the privilege of being the D.J.’s. As school began to wind down this May, my ears perked up between first and second period as Macklemore’s “Same Love” came across the intercom. Macklemore was popular with students for catchy, silly songs like “Thrift Shop”; but in “Same Love,” the artist delved into gay rights issues, including the right to marry. After 30 seconds, the song was pulled off the air, followed by an awkward silence abruptly broken by the clanging of the bell.

It just so happened that my U.S. history class was coming in—a group of seniors that included our school D.J.’s. I had a review activity planned for the beginning of class that day, but I could tell no one was interested. Students instead voiced their frustration and downright anger at the administration for pulling the song.


As their social studies teacher, it is my job to foster active citizens and allow young people to confront controversial issues. This is much easier said than done. A perennial source of frustration among teachers is student indifference to the important social issues of this or any day. So here I have them, in an authentic, spontaneous debate about a controversial issue in which emotions are running high and every student is engaged. How am I, as a Catholic high school teacher, to respond?

I simply let the students talk for 10 minutes, nodded my head and then turned back to the lesson. Looking back, I think I should have done things differently. I would have discussed the complexities that occur when the secular and religious realms seemingly collide. I would have responded to Macklemore’s lyric that “holy water…has been poisoned” by refering to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ publication “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care” (2006), which reminds us that all men and women are created in the likeness of God and must be “accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” I could have done many things to further the discussion. But caught flat-footed that Friday morning, I turned back to my planned lesson and moved on without seriously entering the conversation.

The incident nagged at me well into the summer, not only because of my missed opportunity for deeper dialogue, but because I routinely use Catholic social teaching to discuss controversial issues. I find such issues to be a perfect vehicle for students to grapple with their faith and reach a deeper understanding of the world around them.

Just the week before, my junior U.S. history class discussed the working conditions in American factories during the 19th century. We tied our study of child labor and dangerous working conditions to the recent building collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 1,000 workers. We discussed the dignity of work and ended with the reflection question, “Would you alter your shopping because of working conditions in a faraway factory?” The resulting papers and class discussion revealed a personal connection to the cost of clothing compared to the social costs of low wages and poor working conditions. Students who hardly spoke in class wrote moving reflections.

My senior history class discussed any number of moral issues during that semester that engaged and challenged these young citizens. With the weapons of World War II in mind, we discussed whether or not scientists and engineers are responsible for the carnage inflicted by their inventions. We debated if the targeting of a factory manned by civilians is a legitimate means of waging war. After studying the gangsters of the 1920s, we wondered if our society idolizes violence, citing any number of movies and video games in the process. Chapters on the 1920s and 1960s brought out questions of how much progress has been made in women’s rights in the age of the photoshopped, unattainable female figure and the often degrading song lyrics that were on student phones and iPods at that very moment.

While these issues may be discussed in any high school history course, the Catholic classroom provides opportunities for much deeper engagement and dialogue. Consider Catholic social teaching on the life and dignity of the human person, the dignity of workers and of workers’ rights, the need for wise stewardship of God’s creation, and then apply these themes to the red-hot issues of today: the treatment of immigrants, living wages, access to resources and programs for the poor. The list goes on. And, in an age where the political process seems to be broken and those who shout the loudest are given air time, what could be more civil than a policy debate that centers on the dignity of each human person, even those with whom you disagree?

I have many friends who teach in public schools and who imagine that in Catholic schools, teachers simply toe the party line. I think it is the contrary; while church teachings are presented, there always has been dialogue and genuine debate. Moreover, I can truly be myself in front of my students, discussing how my faith informs my citizenship. I am also free to bring in examples from the Gospels, like the image of Jesus as a countercultural figure. One of Henri Nouwen’s prayers, from his book With Open Hands, occurs to me often. It asks, “God, give me the courage to be revolutionary as your Son Jesus Christ was.” It was indeed Jesus the revolutionary who dined with tax collectors, who confronted a mob set on stoning an adulterous woman and who conversed with the Samaritan woman at the well. My high school students knew what it felt like to be ostracized at times, to feel the pain of a quick or harsh judgment by another and to be categorized by the company they keep. By turning inward and examining our own vulnerabilities, the “other” in the debate—the single mother, the undocumented immigrant, the outcast of society—takes on a new, human dimension in the discussion of controversial issues.

Now, back to the song and the debate it spawned. What does a Catholic high school teacher do when the discussion unfolds into a critique of the church itself? Any good teacher knows his or her audience, and if I had simply stated the church’s position and ended the discussion, I would have played right into the narrative that there is no room for debate on certain sensitive issues. Likewise, if I had said that this is a topic better discussed at home with parents, I would be avoiding the issue and going back on a successful semester of dialogue and debate. Besides, if we cannot discuss controversial issues within the confines of an academic setting, with 25 perspectives and a moderator present, then where can we do it?

Perhaps a good example for young people is a teacher who does not have all the answers, who struggles to put his faith into the context of the 21st century. Perhaps my best strategy that Friday morning would have been just to open up and say how I, as a Catholic and a citizen, sometimes feel conflicted.

Things are never that black and white when we consider them in context. I should have simply modeled how I, too, grapple with the world around us. That might have been the best lesson of all.

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Robert O'Connell
5 years 2 months ago
When we recognize that "It was indeed Jesus the revolutionary who dined with tax collectors, who confronted a mob set on stoning an adulterous woman and who conversed with the Samaritan woman at the well," we have an opportunity to put behind us any confusion, doubt and error as to how we ourselves should live. Jesus never aggrandizes or condones wrongdoing; we ought not. He forgives and loves; he prays and cures. He does his Father's Will, no matter what. Can't we all?


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