Discover more from The Path Not Taken
How I teach Brexit (and other controversial topics)
Over the last few weeks, I have given three lectures on Brexit. This is not the first time – I have lectured on the EU for almost 15 years and covered Brexit since 2015/16 – yet the inclusion of new material has inspired reflection. Given the divisiveness of the topic, lecturing on Brexit is unusually difficult and raises questions of partiality and tolerance.
But such questions are the regular fare of this Substack and I thought that readers might be interested in my approach. If the scars of Brexit are to heal, we must reflect on the best ways of addressing this topic in classrooms. And this will be relevant to difficult debates in other countries. Other lecturers may have different approaches, but here are my five principles for teaching Brexit (and other controversial topics).
I Adopt a neutral tone
In my first lecture after the referendum, back in September 2016, one student voiced scepticism about the effects of Brexit. I nodded in agreement, adding that the result was a ‘disaster’. At the time, I was a very disappointed Remainer and, in the heat of the moment, could not help myself.
Immediately, I realized that such a comment was inappropriate. Whilst I think that lecturers can be open about their own positions, we should avoid very partisan comments, adopting the most sober tone possible. For much of the time, my model is the BBC presenter who reviews competing claims as calmly as possible.
II But occasionally, you can be open about your own views
Yet BBC presenters never affirm their own views, consistent with the principle of impartiality. Presenters even avoid taking positions on social media.
Whilst this may work for the BBC, I do not think that it is appropriate for lecturers. We academics take positions in our research, sometimes unambiguous ones, and many of us are publicly open about these opinions. This is important, helping shape national debate.
Therefore, I am open about my stance on Brexit, telling students that I campaigned for Remain in 2016 but later supported the Withdrawal Agreement (i.e. accepting the result and opposing a second vote). Given that this entailed arguing with both sides, perhaps this puts me in a better position to teach! But I try to maintain a sober tone whilst informing students of my views, refraining from using words like ‘disaster’ (!), and seldom mention my opinions, concentrating on the presentation of material.
III Don’t engage in false equivalence
For years, people have criticized the BBC for its presentation of false equivalence. Most famously, the BBC has featured economists from both sides of the Brexit debate, despite heavy majorities of economists favouring Remain. The merit of this is another question, but, in my opinion, lecturers should not adopt this approach. Many academic debates have settled answers and we should evaluate the weight of evidence, telling students when we think that evidence favours one side of the debate.
Of course, lecturers should be cautious – when reviewing the impact of Central and Eastern European immigration on UK wages, I tell students that evidence is inconclusive – but if there is much better evidence for one side of a debate, this is different. This week, I told my students that there was good evidence that leaving the EU had damaged the UK economy. Having examined several reports, including a dissenting one, I think that evidence for this is strong.
IV Don’t pathologize opposing views
But even if we disagree with a position and/or the weight of evidence is against it, lecturers should be careful not to pathologize opposing views, i.e. mock them or depict them as ‘wrong’. As Mill wrote, cultures of freedom of speech can be as important as legal environments. Therefore, lecturers should show respect to opposing viewpoints.
Of course, this does not apply to all views. For example, lecturers should dismiss positions which rest on minimal evidence (e.g. 9/11 truthism), are unambiguously hateful (e.g. calls to exterminate certain minorities) or combine these traits (e.g. Holocaust denial).
But in other cases, one should treat opposing views with respect. And none of the main positions associated with the referendum were hateful or rested on minimal evidence, meaning that I treat them seriously and respectfully, even if I disagree with them.
V Encourage those in minorities to speak
Relatedly, students who hold minority positions can feel uncomfortable sharing their views; no one likes being unpopular, particularly young people!
Famously, the Leave position is unpopular in universities, heavy majorities of students and academics favouring Remain. Once, a Leave supporting student told me that they were afraid to voice their opinion in class and other colleagues report this.
If classrooms are to run in accordance with Millian principles, this will not do. Students should feel confident expressing legitimate positions, even/especially when they are unpopular with peers. Therefore, I emphasize that support for Leave is welcome in the classroom.
Anyway, that is my approach to teaching Brexit/other difficult topics. Others will have different approaches, but, in my opinion, these principles best promote critical thinking and freedom of speech. As I say to students, I am interested in improving how they think, not teaching them what to think!
If you have feedback, let me know in the comments or on Twitter.
If you enjoyed reading this, do think about subscribing! Subscription is free – all it means is that you’ll receive a weekly email. But every new subscriber makes me very happy 😊 😊 😊