Q & A: Controversy and critical thinking are essential convention elements

February 27, 2018
Dennis Theobald, ATA Executive Secretary

Question: A lot of attention has been given to the fact that Dr. David Suzuki and Dr. Kris Wells have been keynote speakers at teachers’ conventions. Why are these controversial figures being invited to talk to teachers when it just causes friction?

Answer: It is truly ironic that some critics have accused the Alberta Teachers’ Association of wanting to “indoctrinate” teachers and, by extension, students with a radical agenda, whether it be related to environmental policy or gender issues.

In the case of Dr. Suzuki, much of the animus to his appearance is driven by the current controversy swirling around the British Columbia government’s opposition to the expansion of the Kinder-Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline to the west coast and the Alberta government’s escalating response to what it sees as the unconstitutional obstruction of a project vital to the province’s economic future.

Suzuki is no shrinking violet and is prepared to make a compelling and credible case that longer term concerns about global climate change, potential local environmental impacts and the opposition of Indigenous communities should outweigh the benefits to Alberta of continuing the development and exportation of bitumen. Of course there is another case to be made — that the risk associated with transporting diluted bitumen in a pipeline and then on tankers can be mitigated and that, in the short term at least, the world, Dr. Suzuki included, will continue to rely upon fossil fuels. From this perspective, blocking the pipeline will simply lock Alberta’s resource in the ground while opening markets to other producers that may be less conscientious about the environmental and social costs attached to oil production.

But here’s the point, no matter how strongly one embraces either one of these two perspectives, the other and its supporting arguments and underlying values are not simply going to disappear. Intellectual honesty demands that the controversy be recognized and addressed. The first step in that direction is to listen carefully and critically to positions one might disagree with.

Similarly the opposition to Dr. Kris Wells’s appearance at convention is being mounted by a group that appears to reject entirely the reality that gender and sexual minorities exist, let alone Wells’s message that persons who might belong to such groups should be welcomed and their needs and identity supported in public schools. Because they reject Wells’s premises and conclusions, they say teachers should not be exposed to him or his message.

So the essence of the critic’s position is that there are voices and opinions that should simply never be heard — which is an exceedingly strange starting point from which to argue against “indoctrination.” Of course, this irony escapes them entirely.

What I find particularly sinister and offensive about the criticisms that have been leveled against teachers’ conventions is their underlying assumption that teachers are too naive to possibly think for themselves, that our empty little heads will be filled up with nonsense that we will proceed to inflict upon our students. This is a denial of teachers’ professionalism and demonstrates a woeful misunderstanding of teaching and learning.

In my years in the profession I have come to view the presence of controversial speakers at teachers’ conventions as an opportunity for me to hear and potentially appreciate views that I might not agree with. This is not at all new. I have always identified myself as a social studies teacher on leave from the classroom and this is the approach that I and my fellow teachers take with respect to controversial issues precisely to promote critical thinking, respectful dialogue and active citizenship — the very antithesis of indoctrination.

And that is why convention associations, as they are planning their extensive programs (sometimes extending to hundreds of individual sessions) will include speakers who might be controversial —speakers like Suzuki and Wells and also Rex Murphy and Joseph Boyden.

Enjoy your convention! ❚

Questions for consideration in this ­column are welcome. Please address them to Dennis Theobald at Barnett House (dennis.theobald@ata.ab.ca).