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Teaching Controversial Issues

It's axiomatic that democracy depends on an educated populace. Part of the process is to expose students to issues that by their very nature are controversial, and help them develop the ability to analyze conflicting arguments. In "Discussions That Drive Democracy," Diana Hess writes: "This means teaching young people that they should not shun, fear, or ignore such issues. Students need to have experiences respectfully discussing authentic questions about public problems and the kinds of policies that can address those problems" (Educational Leadership, Sept. 2011).

I agree with Hess's position, but I hasten to point out that the freedom of teachers to do so is not guaranteed by any means. Local customs and traditions, coupled with court decisions, make this abundantly clear. Let's take these in order.

What is permissible in a large urban school district is not necessarily permissible in a small rural district. The Council Rock School District in southeastern Pennsylvania is an example. The president of Parents Active in Responsible Education attempted to prevent students from viewing R-rated movies in classrooms. The group argued that such films contain inappropriate content that adds nothing to their education ("Schools look at movies, restrictions in classroom," USA Today, Aug. 19). I suppose "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan," which are both R-rated, would be banned. Although the district upheld its policy, it was subjected to a tense confrontation with parents. Other districts either cave in to demands or require parental permission. The latter was the case in the Marysville Exempted Village School District in Ohio, where complaints by parents led to abandonment of the school board's policy of allowing R-rated movies to be shown based solely on the judgment of the teacher.

Court rulings have a further effect on what teachers can introduce into the curriculum. The most recent decision in this regard came in Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of the Tipp City Exempted Village School District in Oct. 2010. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati, Ohio held that teachers have no First Amendment free-speech protection for curricular decisions they make. What led to this ruling was a high school English teacher's practice of allowing students to choose books that were not on the approved reading list. These included Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. Another unit permitted students to pick books from a list of frequently challenged works. A group of 500 parents petitioned the school board against the teacher, demanding "decency and excellence" in the classroom. The teacher's contract was not renewed.

I respect parents who are involved in their children's education. But I think their actions harm their children's ability to grow into discerning voters. As Hess pointed out, "all views matter in a democracy." If we attempt to shield students from issues simply because they present a contrarian opinion that makes us uncomfortable, we shortchange them as surely as if we had exposed them to a steady diet of propaganda. This is all the more so today because public schools are increasingly multicultural. As a result, different values, attitudes and beliefs will inescapably clash.

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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.

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