November 2021

Greenwall Faculty Scholar Alum Asks Educators to Lean into Conflict

Greenwall Faculty Scholars and Alums contribute to bioethics through more than critical research and clinical practice–they also educate future leaders in health care, policy, and research. At this year’s American Society of Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH) Annual Conference, Greenwall Faculty Scholar Alum Jon Tilburt, MD explored how ethics educators and medical students can best equip themselves to navigate controversial and divisive subjects.

Alongside fellow panelists and Mayo Clinic faculty members Dr. Frederic Hafferty, Dr. Ellen Meltzer, and Dr. Bjorg Thorsteinsdottir, Dr. Tilburt sought to put forth an “accessible, normative argument for what a good ethics pedagogy looks like in our time.” He cautioned educators not to see points of conflict as an indicator of failure in teaching, but as a tool to illustrate difference and diversity to students. He noted that students and educators have different lived experiences and predetermined biases that don’t disappear upon entering medical school. Historically, it was common practice to sidestep disagreements in medical school education, presenting very prototypical cases that mostly avoided contentious current events. But, Dr. Tilburt and colleagues asserted that in today’s society, this approach may do a disservice to students and the field of bioethics.

“[I]t requires a certain kind of dialogical maturity….as well as humility, a crucial civic virtue that has to be modeled in how we teach this.” Jon Tilburt, MD, Greenwall Faculty Scholar Alum Jon Tilburt, MD, Greenwall Faculty Scholar Alum

On the surface, embracing conflict may seem to go against educators’ common goal of generating conditions favorable for maintaining psychological safety in the classroom–a necessity for students’ to be authentic without fear of negative consequences. While acknowledging the importance of psychological safety, Dr. Tilburt advised against equating “safe” with “constructive.” Throughout his presentation he argued that the reality of deep difference will inevitably make its way into the classroom. He emphasized that discussing societal polarization can act as a catalyst for growing one’s capacity to navigate ethics effectively.

Dr. Tilburt described his ideal framework for teaching ethics as an “open pluralism” account, citing the work of Dr. Warren Kinghorn.  On this model students are asked to critically examine the root of their own assumptions in order to have a deeper understanding of the development of their values and empathy for where others are coming from. Students acknowledge the moral particularity of others and foster respect for their differences. Importantly, this approach does not lead to total agreement; according to Dr. Tilburt, it actually enables the opposite. By encouraging students to better understand the source of their own values, educators promote greater mental flexibility. This flexibility fosters more respectful discussions in which students can have their beliefs questioned and imagine what it means to hold other positions in a productive way. This rigorous exercise attempts to break students out of relying merely on their social intuitions and moves them toward making constructive and logical moral arguments.

How do we get students to this state? Dr. Tilburt admitted that it’s not an easy task, “[i]t requires a certain kind of dialogical maturity….as well as humility, a crucial civic virtue that has to be modeled in how we teach this.” It is an ongoing process, he explained, during which students and educators alike should be judged by their capacity for growth and acceptance. Only by embracing conflict can educators best serve their students and prepare them for the seriousness of ethics discourse ahead, concluded Dr. Tilburt.