Abigail Cornejo, a high school sophomore in Illinois, is upset because she wasn’t allowed to write a paper on abortion. Abigail, who is anti-choice, told LifeNews.com:
“My English class is doing a controversial issue research paper. My English teacher, Mr. David Valentino originally told the class we may not do abortion, euthanasia, or legalization of marijuana. I asked why we couldn’t do infanticide, abortion and he replied with, ‘I’ve read too many papers on it. I don’t care anymore.’”
Reportedly, he also eventually told her that she could write a paper about abortion if she wrote that she was in favor of abortion.
Now, I’ve never taught high school. But I have taught college-level freshman English multiple times. And, like David Valentino, I never ever ever let my students write papers on abortion, marijuana legalization, or euthanasia. I include gay marriage and the death penalty in my ban, as well. And I’m not alone in this…I’d say a good portion of my colleagues heavily suggest that students stay away from those paper topics, too.
Why? Because those topics are incredibly difficult to write about in a well-reasoned, well-researched, nuanced manner, especially for beginning writers. They are topics that have been rhetoricized and moralized to death, so it’s difficult (for people who are generally beginners at research, too) to find and parse unbiased sources, as well as to craft an argumentative paper that doesn’t rely on logical fallacies and generalizations. That’s not to say it can’t be done well, but it’s damn hard.
There are literally one hundred bazillion controversial topics in this world. Here are some amazing controversial topics I’ve gotten papers about in the last five years, off the top of my head: Teen pregnancy in New Mexico, red light cameras, curbside recycling, parking on community college campuses, Bloomberg’s policy on formula in NYC hospitals, motorcycle helmet laws, irrigation and water rights, and whether or not the US should have a military presence in Iraq. See? There’s so many things students can write about. Requiring them to become more creative in their paper topics will only help them become better writers and critical thinkers.
I should mention that I have, on occasion, allowed students to write about abortion, but only if there’s a very specific context or if it’s through a local lens. If there’s something happening within the state or city that has to do with changing abortion laws (like requiring transvaginal ultrasounds, for example), then it’s easier for the student to relate the controversy to his or her own citizenship (and find local people to interview as sources!) rather than as a gray, amorphous “moral issue.” But if the paper topic is “Is abortion immoral?” or “Should abortion be legal?” or “Abortion is controversial” or anything like that? Hell, no.
Now, I will say that I don’t think it was ethical for Abigail’s teacher to say “Ok, you can write a paper about abortion if you argue FOR abortion.” (If he did actually do and say that, that is. We’re only hearing her side of the story.) At least in my classes, the point of having to write an argumentative paper is to steer the student towards something they are personally interested and invested in, that they also learn how to write and research about. Telling her to play devil’s advocate to her own moral position seems petty and childish. It also doesn’t seem appropriate for him to say that he “doesn’t care” about abortion anymore, either. I totally sympathize with that mindset, but…it’s really not a good reason for a paper requirement. And dude, this is high school. Parents will be breathing down your neck in a second for arbitrary reasoning like that.
If he had explained to Abigail that he was hoping for a controversial topic that was a bit less common and a bit more specific, that seems like it would have helped his case way more than “Meh, I just don’t want you write about that topic.” Abigail ultimately decided to write about stem-cell research, which I guess was controversial and also creative enough for her teacher. I know I’d 100% rather read a paper about stem-cell research than abortion and honestly, it will likely be a better paper.
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