Can we talk about that?

Are there some topics that should be avoided in NDSU classrooms?

This past Wednesday I sat in class as my fellow students and I were engaged in a debate. Groups of five had been assigned a different position of members of the South during the Civil War. No one was allowed to side with the Union, and I watched in horror as my fellow classmates argued over the economic benefits and drawbacks of “their” slave ownership. Situations like this beg the question: are there certain topics that should be avoided in NDSU classrooms?

It should be noted that there was not a single person of color present in that class, and had there been, I believe the discourse would have proceeded differently. That’s a serious problem.

Discussions such as these are posed by instructors in order to encourage students to take positions that they don’t agree with. That should be made clear: not one person in my class genuinely believed in what they were arguing for.

However, if students in the class would be ashamed for those outside to hear what they were saying, and I was certainly ashamed, it’s fair to say that topic should probably have been avoided.

Where do educators and students need to draw the line between education and bigotry? In my time at NDSU, I have had two professors email students to apologize for a potentially harmful comment made in their classrooms.

Topics such as race, gender, sexual identity and religion can be difficult to navigate in a classroom setting. They must be discussed, but there seems to be a right and a wrong way to do it.

The wrong way to build argumentative skills is through the practice of defending morally reprehensible subjects.

The wrong way to bring up topics in the classroom is if they would personally victimize another NDSU student, even if they are not present.

The wrong way to create unity and safety on campus is to argue in favor of racist, sexist, homophobic or religiously intolerant ideas, even for the sake of education or bipartisanship.

People may feel such ideals create a precedent where professors can’t talk about any controversial topic without making someone uncomfortable. It’s a worn-out saying, but someone will always be offended.

The difference is whether they will feel unsafe or unwelcome because of those ideas. It’s the role of educators to open students’ eyes without tormenting any one of them, and it is the job of students to call out intolerance when we see it.

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