How Controversial Should Classrooms Get?

10 Jun

It’s hard to imagine anyone protesting the teaching of Lovings vs. Virginia, the landmark supreme court case that struck down the law making it illegal for people classified as “white” and “colored” to marry each other.  It’s a historical event that marked a major step forward in the civil rights movement and the idea that marriage was a “fundamental right” for people that could not be revoked.

But what if a classroom talked about Harvey Milk, the gay rights advocate who was assassinated 11 months after being elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.  That might be far more controversial.

Part of the role of public education is to create an informed citizenry, one educated not just in math and science and history, but in ethics and morals.  That can cause conflict with parents and families, especially if their beliefs don’t match those of the educators or school.  This conflict comes up again and again in education, such as the abstinence vs. safe-sex controversy, or debate about what the second amendment really means, or evolution vs. creationism.  What constitutes a subject that teachers should take on, and when do they overstep their boundaries?

Roy and Silo are two male penguins who raise a chick, Tango, together.

Roy and Silo are two male penguins who raise a chick, Tango, together.

The trouble is that the line is different for everyone.  Case in point: And Tango Makes Three, a nonfiction story about two male penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo who formed a couple and were given an egg to raise, has topped the list of banned books for years.  Critics argue that it promotes the idea that homosexuality in animals is normal, and thus acceptable in humans.  Some schools have banned the book outright, or moved it to restricted sections of their library where only parents can check a text out.  On the other hand, supporters of the book say it shouldn’t be censored because it’s telling a true story, and it supports the idea of strong family bonds.

One way we to look at potentially controversial topics is through the lens of tolerance.  Schools have a responsibility to keep students safe–emotionally as well as physically–and part of that responsibility is played out in how we treat one another.  From kindergarten through high school, we teach children that you have a duty to be kind and respectful to all people, whether you like and agree with them or not.  Books like And Tango Makes Three help promote tolerance.  All schools have children who live in alternative families–two dads or two moms, grandparents as the primary caregivers, single father, etc.  It’s important that those students both feel connected to school and that other children are respectful of their home lives.

The hot-button issues may change, but the question of what schools should teach our children will remain controversial.  And teachers shouldn’t have total freedom in what they teach–just look at what happened in a 4th grade science class when this teacher was allowed to impose his or her own views:


But for some controversial topics, we should look at the outcome of education and say, “Will this lead to a more tolerant and kinder classroom and school?” If the answer is yes, let that be our guide.

2 Responses to “How Controversial Should Classrooms Get?”

  1. Paula McVeigh June 11, 2014 at 9:25 am #

    Enjoyed reading about this topic and agree with your guiding question. Great topic! Paula

    Sent from my iPhone

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