Opinion
Education Opinion

Teaching About Controversial Issues

By Walt Gardner — December 03, 2012 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

There are few subjects that are more likely to spark a heated debate than whether controversial issues should be taught in public schools. I was reminded once again of this subject after reading an op-ed about Thomas Jefferson in The New York Times (“The Monster of Monticello,” Dec. 1). As the title of the piece indicates, Jefferson was hardly a paragon of virtue. Yet how many school districts would be willing to allow their teachers to present the dark side of this icon?

What I find confusing is that practically everyone agrees that developing critical thinking skills in students is one of the most important goals. I’ve always believed that the best way of achieving that objective is to allow students to address controversial issues head on and to teach them how to analyze the evidence on both sides. Trying to shield them is a prescription for boredom. Young people have strong opinions about controversial issues in the news. The responsibility of schools is to teach them how to take a hard look at their attitudes. As long as teachers do not try to present their own view as the only correct one, I see only positive things happening. What are we so afraid of?

This question has particular relevance today because young people have access to information via the Internet that was not available to former generations. Preventing teachers from dealing with their questions as a result of board of education policies or curriculum guidelines is guaranteed to diminish student respect for their education and in the long run shortchange them. Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, warned years ago that high school doesn’t work anymore because students mature substantially earlier today than they did when high school was invented. “Information and images, as well as the real and virtual freedom of movement we associate with adulthood, are now accessible to every 15- and 16-year-old” (“Let Teen-Agers Try Adulthood,” The New York Times, May 17, 1999).

I realize that the possibility of my recommendation ever becoming a reality depends in large part on the area of the country where a school is located. For example, in April of this year the Tennessee Legislature sent a bill to the governor about teaching “scientific subjects that may cause debate and disputation,” including evolution and global warming. Tennessee, lest we forget, was the site of the infamous 1925 “Monkey Trial,” in which John Scopes was convicted of violating a state law against teaching that “man has descended from a lower order of animals.” I doubt that most states on the coasts would be the venue for similar cases because they tend to be more open-minded.

There will always be a risk that some parents with children in public schools will object to freedom of inquiry for one reason or another. But they should not be permitted to hold the rest of the school hostage because of their personal beliefs. Education requires the courage to search for truth - never more so than now.

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.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP