Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Books for the News, Education

The Case for Contentious Curricula

Here’s a brief chunk adopted from The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schoolsas featured in the Atlantic.


Laws, school officials, and community opinion have all conspired to prevent or discourage American teachers from discussing controversial issues in their classrooms. This is not to say teachers have always avoided such issues: In 1953, at the height of the Cold War, a survey of social-studies teachers in Ohio revealed they were leading classroom discussions about whether President Harry Truman should have seized steel mills, whether Truman should have fired General Douglas MacArthur, and whether—as MacArthur wished—the United States should have used an atomic bomb in the Korean War. That same year, in another survey, New York City teachers reported holding debates on whether “Red” China should have a seat in the United Nations, whether Communists should be allowed to teach in public schools, whether Julius and Ethel Rosenberg should have received the death penalty for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, and whether Senator Joseph McCarthy was “a menace to or savior of American democracy.”

After several teachers were dismissed for their own Communist affiliations, some admitted they were afraid to discuss anything controversial in their classes. But the survey seemed to show their concerns were misplaced, or at least exaggerated. “Let the teachers who do have these fears take heart,” the survey’s author wrote. “The very subjects which they say they are afraid to teach are being taught by many of their colleagues in adjoining classrooms and neighboring schools. Such teachers are imposing an unnecessary censorship on themselves.”

Into the present, some evidence indeed suggests teachers overestimate the constraints on addressing controversial issues in their classrooms. Novice teachers, especially, express surprise when they hear about veteran instructors who openly discuss divisive public questions with their students. “You let them talk about what?!” teachers in a recent study asked a colleague when they heard about her lessons. “You let them express what opinion?” In many ways, these remarks speak to the new teachers’ weak preparation for one of their central civic roles: to explore controversial issues with future citizens. It’s also a reminder that this kind of instruction continues to occur, despite the paucity of professional training for the task and—particularly in recent years—the shrinking legal protections for it.


To read the excerpt in full, click here.

To read more about The Case for Contention, click here.