The news from the nation’s most influential state board of education is another reminder of the difficulty of creating a curriculum that passes muster with all stakeholders. In early March, the Texas board released its social studies standards, which are expected to be adopted in May. Because the Texas market is so large (4.7 million students), no publisher dares to print textbooks that don’t conform to the stipulated standards.
But the larger issue here is the purpose of a curriculum, whether on a state or national level. Although Texas is the latest focus, the debate over what should be taught is not new. There has long been a tension between various groups.
In 1925, for example, Tennessee passed the Butler Act, which made it illegal to teach “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible.” It was the basis for the Scopes “monkey trial” that drew nationwide attention. The law was finally repealed in 1967, but the battle was not over. In 2005, the U.S. District Court barred the Dover Area School Board in Pennsylvania from teaching “intelligent design” in biology classes, holding that the concept is creationism in disguise.
In light of the ongoing curricular wars, maybe the way to make peace is to provide balance on controversial events. Certainly at the high school level, this strategy is appropriate because students have greater maturity than in elementary school. Moreover, they are more sophisticated today than they have ever been.
Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, understood this when he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on May 17, 1999 (“Let Teen-Agers Try Adulthood”). He argued that young people today “mature substantially earlier in the late 20th century than they did when the high school was invented.” He attributed the metamorphosis to information and images that were not available to earlier generations.
One of the reasons students become bored as they move closer to high school graduation is that they lose respect for the version of events so often depicted in textbooks. It’s time to give them the opportunity to see both sides of controversial issues. They can handle it.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.