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Teaching Controversial Issues in ‘Interesting’ Times

By William J. Tolley — April 18, 2017 5 min read
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“May you live in interesting times.” —Chinese curse (apocryphal)

Early in my career, when I was teaching at a magnet school in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York City, I was baffled every year when at least one student would submit an essay making the case for Adolf Hitler as a misunderstood genius. I never refused to let a student make his or her case. Instead, I would monitor the student’s work closely, demand rigorous evidence for any argument, and play devil’s advocate. Their arguments extolling historical tyrants tended to fall apart as soon as the investigation pushed past internet imagery and memes.

Generally, if students in the United States want to work through what may seem a dubious political or ethical topic, history teachers do not flatly deny them the opportunity to do so. Regardless of the students’ motives, a flat denial of their inquiry will often be counterproductive. The history teacher’s job is not to tell students what to think; instead, we must give students opportunities to challenge conventional wisdom. We don’t want our students to become automatons regurgitating narratives, but critical thinkers who can take their place as informed citizens in an advanced democracy.

On the surface, my current experience as a teacher at an international school in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could not be more different. Here, I have not only had to shut down the research choices of my students, but my colleagues and I have been instructed to avoid certain historical topics altogether. In the PRC, the impact of communist revolutionary Mao Zedong on modern China and “The Three Ts” (Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen Square) are considered no-go zones for historical study. The government actually provides a guideline for understanding Mao that stems from a statement by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1981: Mao was 70 percent right in his actions, and 30 percent wrong. Full stop. Develop your curriculum from here.

Two years ago, this matter came to a head when one of my students wanted to write her extended essay (the senior thesis required to earn an International Baccalaureate, or IB, diploma) on Mao’s culpability during the Great Leap Forward, his largely failed attempt to industrialize China in 10 years through subsequent USSR-style five-year plans. After her choice of essay was denied by school representatives without an explanation, her parents petitioned me for a reason.

I referred to the school’s by-laws, which explicitly state that the school, its employees, and its students will operate in compliance with the laws and the constitution of the PRC. Studying an English translation of the PRC’s constitution, I learned that the treatment of historical subjects of sensitivity—as defined by the state—is subject to state scrutiny and possible prosecution, especially if shared or distributed online. As IB extended essays are now uploaded to the internet for submission, the school’s position in accordance with the law was clear.

To be fair, my students and their families moved to China voluntarily and no one forced them to enroll at my school. I also came of my own accord, knowing very well that I may face challenges as a history teacher working within an unfamiliar political system.

This is not my first close encounter with autocracy. Before visiting Burma (now Myanmar) in 1999, I asked my senior thesis advisor from college, an expert in Burma and decolonization, about the ethics of being a tourist in an authoritarian state. He encouraged me to go, advising, “Bill, how else are we going to learn about the truth of the situation there? And how sure are you that the government of the United States hasn’t resembled Burma’s in the past, or that it won’t in the future? Don’t throw stones until you test the walls.”

Keeping an open mind, however, is different than avoiding controversial topics, especially those of critical contemporary relevance. Our challenge as teachers in the PRC is finding a way to respect the school’s obligation to its government and community, while still helping students grapple with the big questions of their day—all without getting fired.

Here are a few solutions my colleagues and I have devised:

1. We redesigned the curriculum to focus not on East Asia, but on the Americas (one of the four choices offered by the International Baccalaureate organization). In this framework, we can still cover China’s role in international events like World War II and the Cold War, while avoiding sensitive domestic issues.

2. We reselected our core units to include decolonization, civil rights, human rights, and U.S. foreign policy. This allows us to address key human rights issues as faced by people in the United States, Latin America, and the former European colonies.

3. We made the issues of the day a primer for learning about the issues of the past. Using worldwide current events as a springboard for our discussions, we make connections between contemporary consequences and their historical causes—and always round back to discuss change and continuity over time.

The end result? We have cultivated a cohort of students who have never directly addressed the three Ts and Mao’s 30-percent culpability through their submitted work, but have been exposed to parallel case studies that give them the critical thinking tools they need to grapple with these forbidden topics. Hallway conversations about China’s expansion in the South China Sea, challenges to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and government responses to Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution are not against the law, and, as Mark Twain would observe, they “rhyme” well with past events like the annexation of Tibet, the continued sensitivity over the One China policy, and the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.

History rhymes right across the Pacific. My experience in China has taught me to raise controversial issues in challenging circumstances. As a teacher in the PRC, I strive to respect all members of the community while refusing to retreat from necessary conversations. This can instruct teachers’ conduct in American classrooms as well.

How are the walls in your classroom these days? Do they stand solidly against the challenge of ‘alternative facts'; threats to defund programs critical to historical literacy, like the National Endowment for the Humanities; and movements to ban seminal revisionist history texts, like A People’s History of the United States?

There is no 70/30 rule in the United States, so be creative. Respect your community and stay in the classroom, but hold the powerful accountable for their actions. Remember, it’s our duty as American educators—and as citizens—to ensure that our nation’s “Ts” are not shielded from history, but face scrutiny in both the present and the future.

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