Review of "Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools" by Jonathan Zimmerman and Emily Robertson


Luther Spoehr, an HNN reviewer and Senior Lecturer at Brown University, is the author of “Academic Freedom and Tenure in the United States,” an annotated bibliography in Oxford University Press’ online series, Oxford Bibliographies in Education (2016).

This is a short, optimistic book—probably too short, almost certainly too optimistic—that “frames a case for teaching controversial issues in schools, and for excluding issues that are not truly controversial.”   Its optimism is balanced by realism:  education scholars Jonathan Zimmerman and Emily Robertson note that “From the birth of America into the present, teachers have engaged controversial public issues at their peril.”  And these days, with reason, evidence, logic, objectivity, and truth held in low regard by far right and far left, and public discourse often reduced to tweets and sound bites, the peril is indisputably great.  How can we expect schools and teachers to rescue civic engagement when so much of society seems bent on corrupting it?  They are a weak reed on which to lean, perhaps, but, then again, what else is there?

The book’s first half, an episodic tour of how schools have handled public issues (or avoided handling them) over the past two centuries, is sobering.  Here’s Horace Mann, often regarded as the founding father of the public schools:  “If the day ever arrives when the school room shall become a cauldron for the fermentation of all the hot and virulent opinions, in politics and religion, that now agitate our community, that day the fate of our glorious public school system will be sealed, and speedy ruin will overwhelm it.”  After World War I, as more and more students stayed in school, a bevy of new, inflammable topics inspired 90 percent of America’s school districts to prescribe procedures for teaching current events. An associate superintendent in New York, as he fired teacher Benjamin Glassberg for supposedly exaggerating the popularity of the Bolsheviks in Russia, explained that the teacher’s job is “to correct, if possible, notions held by students in opposition to fundamental American ideas.”

The usual suspects—Communism, civil rights, the Vietnam war, among others--populate the last century’s list of radioactive topics; Zimmerman and Robertson content themselves with illustrative examples.  But explanations for why teachers often shied away from them are surprisingly varied.  For instance, “in a 1967 survey of over 600 teachers…a whopping 89 percent admitted they ‘lack[ed] the competence to discuss controversial issues with students,’” confirming that not much had changed since Howard K. Beale’s 1936 study of freedom in the schools, which argued, in Beale’s words, that “the worst restrictions on freedom…arise out of the teacher’s own inadequacies.” 

But what of the competent teachers who did want to address such issues?  Should they be neutral or take a side?  It seemed a lose-lose proposition.  On the one hand, hiding their own views and “keeping coy made them seem fake and superficial,” but, on the other, “revealing their views risked indoctrinating young minds,” or at least being charged with doing so.  In 1938 Alexander Meiklejohn, a noted defender of free speech and academic freedom, made this distinction:  “Our teachers must be advocates, but they may never be salesmen or propagandists.  The very existence of democratic schools depends upon that distinction.”  But exactly where should the line be drawn in each case?  And who should draw it?

Taking a cue from psychologist Edward Thorndike’s taxonomy in his “Teaching of Controversial Subjects” (1937), Zimmerman and Robertson devote the second half of their book to “Philosophical Reflections:  Exploring the Ideal of Teaching Controversial Issues.”  They break down controversies into three categories.  One, “expert-public disagreement,” pits an expert consensus against a portion of the public (for instance, whether vaccines cause autism, or the reality of climate change).  When examining expert-public disagreement, students should learn how, why, and when to defer to experts—not least by examining the question of what makes someone an expert.  The authors are aware that respect for experts (or “experts”?) isn’t what it used to be, but they—optimistically—believe that students can learn a lot by “developing an awareness of epistemic labor.” 

A second type, “expert-expert disagreement,” involves disputes between specialists (over, say, a literary interpretation), but lacks intellectual or emotional involvement by the public.  This type of dispute presents an opportunity for student inquiry:  they can study how knowledgeable scholars use evidence, construct arguments, and then come to their own conclusions (without, Zimmerman and Robertson add, being allowed to cop out and conclude that one opinion is just as good as another).  Ideally, they learn skills and attitudes that help them approach the last type of controversy constructively.

Most of Zimmerman and Robertson’s attention, understandably, goes to this last type: “maximally controversial issues.”  These involve “disagreement among fairly knowledgeable persons” and a lack of conclusive evidence, so that disputes may be based on differences about which facts matter most, or over values, often deeply held.  Paradoxically, in such extreme situations, it is possible that “neither side may hold that the issue really is controversial, each believing instead that its position is obviously correct.”  If experts disagree, if disputes are emotional, if values—and not just facts—are at stake, then teachers should indeed step back and, as the saying goes, “teach the controversy.” 

Zimmerman and Robertson know that this stance inevitably raises the question of “Who decides [their emphasis] when good arguments are available on different sides of an issue, thus making it appropriately taught as open?”  They emphasize the need to rely on teachers’ professional judgment, but recognize that teachers interested in self-preservation need protection.  School teachers have far less academic freedom than college professors do.  Upholding an Indiana school district’s firing of a teacher for telling a class that she did not support the Iraq war, the 7th Circuit Court referred to the Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos that limited the free speech rights of public employees:  “The school system does not ‘regulate’ teachers’ speech as much as it hires that speech.”  Although other court decisions seem to leave teachers more wiggle room, Zimmerman and Robertson conclude that “the most promising point of intervention may be school district policy,” and their survey of several dozen district policies gives them hope.  For our part, let’s hope that many school board members and superintendents, as well as teachers themselves, read this book.  A policy is only as strong as the backbone of enforcement. 

Even if the schools are prepared to back up their teachers, however, that may not produce students better able to handle hot-button topics.  Studies of what students learn show that not much sinks in.  Confirming this, for over 20 years as a college instructor at a “selective” institution, I have seen a steady decline in students’ ability or willingness to examine hot subjects coolly, along with an equivalent decline in background knowledge and historical thinking skills.  (Thanks, NCLB.)  Some students tell me that their teachers steered clear of student inquiry and taught history as a sterile parade of “facts.”  Others, equally disempowered, had teachers who pushed their own master narrative.  Recognizing different points of view, using empathy, realizing that values and attitudes can change over time, all too readily take a back seat to snap moral judgments that promote a soothing sense of righteousness at the expense of more complicated understandings. 

In other words, in addition to policies that protect teachers’ right to address controversy, we need teachers willing and competent to do so, and time in the classroom to place difficult subjects in context.  A tall order in a polarized age when public models of well-argued discourse are hard to come by.  Zimmerman and Robertson provide one.  I wish I were more optimistic that it will be taken to heart where it matters most.

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