Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Controversy over Controversial Issues: Ensuring More Classroom Discussion about Contentious Topics Requires More Prestige and Protection for the Teachers Who Must Lead Those Conversations

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Controversy over Controversial Issues: Ensuring More Classroom Discussion about Contentious Topics Requires More Prestige and Protection for the Teachers Who Must Lead Those Conversations

Article excerpt

In 1947, the California State Senate considered a measure that would have barred the teaching of controversial issues in public schools. "No publication of a sectarian, partisan, or denominational character ... shall be used or distributed in any school library," the measure declared, "nor shall any sectarian or denominational doctrine or politically controversial subject be taught in any school." The proposal generated an amusing satire by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Royce Brier, who imagined a future class called Skipping Around American History. Its teacher began by asking the class about George Washington; in reply, young Johnny noted that Washington was "the richest man in America, or almost." That earned a rebuke from the teacher, who warned Johnny--and his friend Mary--to steer away from potentially divisive subjects (Brier, 1947):

TEACHER: Johnny, we don't use the word "rich" here. We certainly don't discuss the social status of heroes like George Washington, for that would be controversial.

MARY: He won the Revolution.

TEACHER: That's right.... But be careful of that word. Let's call it the War of Independence. Independence is something everybody wants and not controversial.

JOHNNY: I think slavery was race prejudice, don't you?

TEACHER: Around here, it's a ticklish subject, and I would advise you not to think about it.

MARY: Woodrow Wilson sure stopped the Bolsheviks.

JOHNNY: If he did, what's Harry Truman doing still trying to stop them?

TEACHER: Children, this is a wholly improper discussion of modern history. If you continue thinking along these controversial lines you will never grow up to be intelligent American citizens.

The joke, of course, was on proponents of the measure, which threatened to inhibit the true skills of intelligent citizenship: debate, deliberation, and discussion. It also came on the cusp of the Cold War, which placed severe restrictions on expression and dissent across the American polity. However, efforts to limit students' exposure to political disagreement were hardly confined to the 1940s. From the birth of America into the present, teachers have engaged controversial public issues at their peril. During the Revolutionary War, teachers suspected of "Loyalist" sentiment were hounded out of "Patriot" towns, and vice versa; in the mid-19th century, Southerners barred schoolteachers from discussing slavery; after America entered World War I, teachers who raised questions about the conflict were fired; in the 1950s, teachers were prohibited from inviting any real discussion of socialism and communism, except to condemn them; in the 1960s and 1970s, teachers were demoted or dismissed for exploring the war in Vietnam or civil rights at home; and as recently as 2007, a court upheld the firing of a teacher who told students that she had honked her horn while driving by a rally to protest America's invasion of Iraq.

But the most significant restriction on public school teachers has come from the public itself. At the simplest level, most citizens have neither wanted nor trusted teachers to handle controversial questions. A survey of Californians in the late 1930s found that one-third approved teaching such questions at the junior high school level and two-thirds at the secondary level. But more than half said they would exclude lessons that "might cause pupils to doubt the justice of our social order and government;" two-thirds said teachers should be fired for "giving arguments in favor of Communism" even if the teacher only offered them "for the sake of argument." Others condemned schools for contradicting or challenging their own points of view. "The basic question is whether educators are to be our servants or our masters," one respondent explained. "I am not at all ready to turn over to the educators the training of my children along political, religious, and social lines ... It is rather distasteful to find the school working at cross purposes with the parent. …

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