Tom Gilson

Students Debating Teachers In Class: Not Usually a Good Idea

Friday Parent Focus

Last time here I wrote about what to say to your child when their teachers contradict Christianity. There’s one more point I need to add. I’ll mention it in the student pages next August, but since I’ve already begun the topic, I’ll preview it for parents here. If a teacher contradicts the faith in the classroom, how should Christian students respond? How should you coach them as a parent? For students to debate teachers on Christianity isn’t often wise. There’s a better way to respond.

Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason has excellent advice on this in Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions. He wrote it with college students in mind, but it could apply at any level. I’ll quote him at length:

Well-meaning believers sometimes take up the challenge and attempt a head-to-head duel with the professor. Don’t make this mistake. It’s right-hearted but wrong-headed [I love that line! — TG]. This approach rarely works because it violates a fundamental rule of engagement: Never make a frontal assault on a superior force in an entrenched position. An unwritten law of nature seems to govern exchanges like these: The man with the microphone wins. The professor always has the strategic advantage, and he knows it. It’s foolish to get into a power struggle when you are out-gunned.

There’s a better way. Don’t disengage. Instead, use your tactics [which Koukl explains at much more length throughout this book, which you really ought to read!]. Raise your hand and ask a question. For starters, you might ask, “Professor, can you give us a little more detail? What kind of fable are you talking about [the Bible being]? Do you think nothing in the biblical documents has any historical value? Is everything in the book a fanciful invention of some sort? What’s your opinion?”

Let the professor explain himself…. listen carefully…. take notes…. ask further clarification questions if necessary….

When you are satisfied that you have a clear take on his view… ask him how he came to his conclusions…. Make the teacher, the one making the claim, shoulder the burden of proof for his own assertions.

And then if the instructor says something like, “What are you — one of those unthinking fundamentalists who believes the Bible?” Koukl warns, “Don’t take the bait.” The student’s best answer is, “I haven’t made any claims here. I’m just asking you to explain yours.” Koukl goes on,

If he gives an answer, think him for explaining himself and either ask another question or let it go for the time being. You have done the best you can under the circumstances.

There may come a time when the student can raise more serious questions about the teacher’s position — maybe in the teacher’s office, or maybe in conversation with classmates, when the teacher isn’t there. But the classroom isn’t the best place. For younger students in particular, it’s hard to contest the teacher’s position without being disrespectful. And it’s even harder to come out ahead in the debate. Better to “stay engaged while deftly sidestepping the power struggle.” Better if necessary simply to cut your losses.

And who knows: maybe when the teacher is asked, “What’s your reason for saying that?” he won’t have an answer. It could happen.

Koukl has much more to say about this, but this gives you an idea. Did I mention that I recommend his book? I do — strongly.

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