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Teaching About Controversial Issues

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.

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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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