Controversy…our very world is full of it! It only takes a few clicks in the blogosphere to become embroiled in one controvery or another and everyday it seems we are heaping on more and more controversy involving subjects from religion to politics and from education issues to social ones like teen pregnancy or abortion. Historians have their fair share of controversies as well---the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Crusades, the causes and effects of any war---and because there are no definitive black or white answers due to individual analysis and conjecture many issues remain controversial until more evidence is located that cannot be refuted in any way.
Think about it for a minute…you see something in a blog, newspaper, or book that goes against the grain, your ire is up and you want to voice your own opinion in response. Many of you would rely on your own prior knowledge and a large number of you would dig a little deeper to verify some of the things you disagreed with in the original article….just to make sure, you know. In the process your horizons are broadened just a bit with some of your prior knowledge being confirmed and some of it being thoroughly debunked. You, my good friend, have learned something in the process.
I’m not one that really wants to get embroiled in a controversy and at first glance I might balk at the idea of actually planning for one in the classroom! Who needs the hassle, right?
In his book Creative Controversy---Intellectual Challenge in the Classroom, Dr. David Johnson advises conflict has considerable value for educators and students when the controversy is managed constructively [by the teacher]. Controversial questions can actually teach students to deal with all types of controversy; they can help to structure debate in the classroom, and reinforce conflict resolutions skills.
Dr. Johnson advises academic controversy exists when one person’s ideas, information, conclusions, theories, and opinions are incompatible with those of another party, and both parties have to reach an agreement. However, in today’s world where many believe controversial issues have no gray areas but are either white or black we see no concessions or even a hint of an admission that with some issues we simply don’t have enough information to have an exact answer.
Last week’s wordlesss image was a portion of a painting by Arnold Friberg called VaThe Prayer at Valley Forge (1975). An earlier engraving of Washington’s Prayer by Henry Brueckner also exists. Friberg explains in his own words the reasons why he completed the painting and the research he conducted in the process. From the site Friberg states The well known American legend is without documentation. But from Washington's own words there can be no doubt of his deep and humble dependence upon whom he chose to call "that all wise and powerful Being on whom alone our success depends."
I decided to use the painting of Washington praying due to the very controversies surrounding it (if you haven’t already this would be a good time to check out the comments made regarding my mystery image here):
*A man, George Washington, is praying. Some believe it is wrong to show public school students an image of someone in prayer. I’ve read where this painting has been banned from public buildings including schools, but I have no specific locations.
*There is a strong religious message as you view the painting that sends the separation of chuch and state crowd into a tizzy.
*Washington in prayer?!? Some believe Washington was Christian while others argue he was a Deist and not a Christian.
*The backstory behind the painting is suspect and many historians argue that it is nothing more than an American myth.
I strongly feel there is nothing illegal or irresponsible by showing students the painting by Mr. Friberg. As many of my commentors suggested this image can be used to teach about Valley Forge, American myths, the evaluation of historical sources, and can even lead to a discussion on the exact wording of the Constititution regarding freedom of religion and as Polski3 stated Jefferson’s own opinion regarding the separation of church and state.
Everyone had really great ideas concerning how to use the painting. Following Dr. David Johnson’s ideas on academic controversy, however, I have in the past shown the painting to students and discussed its background. After carefully pairing students together I have provided them with several bits of information concerning the various controversies surrounding the painting that I mentioned above. The trick with a lesson surrounding academic controversy is to allow the students to explore the information, evidence, and points of view and allow them to arrive at solutions on their own.
Each team receives information based on only one point of view. They must digest the information and understand the point of view so that they can relate the position to their partner. After both sides have been presented the partners trade information and the process begins again resulting in each partner presenting the alternative point of view. Many students state it is very interesting to see how differently their partner can interpret the same information.
Following the second set of presentations the partners work together to analyze both sets of information and they attempt to discover which point of view seems the most plausible. Finally, students synthesize their new knowledge by arriving at a concensus that each student must word on his or her own in writing to turn in. Sometimes the concensus my students have arrived at is simply agreeing to disagree while others disagree greatly with one point of view but certainly understand where it came from.
I have found these types of activities motivate my most reluctant students and also begin to help them understand how to listen to a different point of view that can affect their lives inside and outside of the classroom.
Our hot-button issues in history, science, religion, politics, education, and our social and cultural lives aren’t going away anytime soon. What concerns me is it doesn’t seem that any of the sides to an issue are willing to concede even an inch of ground to move on. Unfortunately some controversies are not white or black. They are very gray, and allowing students an opportunity to mix points of view in order to see the gray is a very powerful thing to do---not necessarily to teach tolerance or to teach compromise at all costs, but to teach students what it is to have an intelligent informed dialogue regarding controversial subjects and to understand with some issues we might never have a meeting of the minds.
Tomorrow I will post a list of various online sources that can be used to formulate materials for students to view when Friburg’s painting is used in an academic controversy lesson.
UPDATE: My source list is now published here