I learned a lesson today, which is to say I taught a lesson and unexpectedly learned something. And the people who taught me didn’t even know what they were teaching.
My Year 12s were discussing euthanasia as part of their religious studies A-level. “Could there ever be a reason to end someone’s life as a kindness?” I asked them.
“Yes, if they’ve asked for it,” one said. “It’s voluntary and it’s their life. Ending it when you want is…dignified.”
“And what about if it’s involuntary?” I asked. “What about ending the life of, say, someone in a permanent vegetative state?”
“It depends on whether you withdraw treatment or give them something to kill them,” said another student.
“But is consent necessary?”
“Not if they’re brain dead. Not if they’ll never recover.”
“What about babies that are severely disabled?” asked the first student. “They can’t consent. Should we kill them, too?” Her friend looked troubled.
“No…but…wait, maybe, if they were very young. Then it’s almost like abortion isn’t it?”
Another student said: “If you allow abortion up to 24 weeks, or later, what’s the difference between being inside and outside the mother? If the baby isn’t going to ever be aware, then maybe it’s kinder.”
“You’re basically saying that doctors should put them down like animals,” said the first student. “That’s like the film we watched, Sophie’s Choice.”
“Maybe you should allow abortion up to a limit of three months?” one student suggested.
“Why not four? What’s the difference?” I asked. “Why is a child different from an adult? Why is a disabled person different in this respect from an able-bodied person? What does Kant say about killing?”
And so it went on. It occurred to me that what we were engaging in was one of the greatest inventions since we first pulled ourselves out of the mud: the civil conversation. There we were, discussing abortion, one of the most sensitive topics imaginable, but no one was flipping out, demanding that a view be suppressed or claiming that their feelings had seniority over anyone else’s. The most extreme views were considered. But they were discussed as artefacts, not a sacred cow. No one stood up and chained themselves to anything in protest.
This is what people do when conversations are powerful and inspiring. We create virtual laboratories that exists in the peculiar communal telepathy called a discussion. In those laboratories we test ideas. And because they are only ideas, we can walk in the minefield unafraid.
By the end of the debate, the students’ ideas had changed through exposure to others and, because of that, they had changed, too. They were different people from who they were when they walked into the classroom. Magic had happened, of a wonderful but everyday kind, as it does in every lesson where we build a fire, feed it with ideas and sit around it feeling the warmth.
I marvelled at the ability of these young pioneers to be unfazed by the magnitude of the topic they tackled; by the controversies and battles that their peers often face in a world where nothing can be discussed without setting off mousetraps and tripwires. I’m saddened to read about the censorship wars of some university campuses, where certain ideas are apparently too toxic to even be discussed. This, in places that were once great temples to debate and free speech – or free thought at least.
If an idea is unpalatable, then discuss it, and shine a light on why it is so. But ignorance is a weed that blossoms in the darkness; light kills it. Unpalatable views cannot be closed down by edict. They just go somewhere else. My class were doing a brilliant job of shining a light. And if they can get it right, so can we.
Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71