Controversy in the Classroom: A Matter for Debate

Pillarisetti Sudhir, May 2010

The essays that follow, gathered under the rubric of “Controversy in the Classroom,” are the result of a conscious decision by the Perspectives on History editorial board to solicit essays from readers on various ways in which teachers at different levels coped with the challenges of teaching controversial topics in the history classroom.

Members of the editorial board were provoked to think about organizing such an anthology of essays by an article we received more than a year ago from Christopher Doyle. In that essay, which appears in this issue, Doyle thoughtfully and lucidly set out the necessity of teaching about the history of sex despite the difficulties attendant upon undertaking that task. Even as they agreed that it was an article that we should publish at the earliest opportunity, members of the editorial board decided that it would be even better to situate Doyle’s article within a set of essays that explored—from multiple perspectives—the many aspects of the basic problem: Should controversial topics be dealt with in the history classroom? Can that be avoided? If teachers want to (or have to) deal with controversial topics, how can they confront that challenge without creating consequential problems for their students or themselves? What are the topics that can be (or are) denoted as “controversial” and who designates them thus? Many were the questions that could be raised; but while we did not expect to find answers for all, we hoped to find a representative sample by soliciting article proposals in the first instance. In response, we received numerous synopses, from which we selected some that could be expanded into full essays that would not only report about the authors’ experiences in dealing with controversial topics, but also provoke further discussion. The result of that process is this collection of 15 brief essays that address the question of teaching controversial topics.

The modern classroom, forged to meet the needs of industrialization, was not meant to be a site for contestations and controversies. From one-room schoolhouses on the prairies of hinterlands to the crowded, redbrick halls of city-center ivory towers, classrooms were mainly locations for the transmission of knowledge. Students were expected, for the most part, to receive the wisdom of their teachers without questioning; and teachers, on their part, were supposed to steer clear of controversial topics. Social and cultural pressures, administrative fiats, parental reactions, and even, at times legislative measures, ensured that for a long time, classrooms, whether in secondary schools or in colleges and universities, remained uncontaminated by debate and controversy (with only the occasional flare-up over such matters as the teaching about Darwinian evolution in a place where it was forbidden by law). This was especially true, perhaps, for history classrooms, as long as the discipline of history itself remained an uncontested terrain. That seemingly happy situation was changed, and changed utterly with the advent of new historiographic perspectives and new histories that, yoked as they were to radical sociopolitical transformations, brought new groups into history books (and classrooms) that had, until then, remained homogenous and anodyne. History, long a subject that induced yawns of ennui and indifference, suddenly became a serious site for controversy, one in which the content of school textbooks became a matter of fierce struggles in locations as distant as India, Japan and Texas, or in which new interpretations of old themes were continually challenged or declared non grata.

Such dramatic complications might seem alien to the history of science. But as a recent case of a successful lawsuit against a teacher of European history who adversely commented on creationism (reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education of May 6, 2009) indicated, even the history of science is not immune to controversy. The first essay in our set, by Oscar Chamberlain and Anthony Millevolte describes an ingenious way of getting the students to immerse themselves in a pre-Copernican worldview so that ultimately they come to see how “one kind of reasoning turned out to be better than others,” and then applying that approach to their study of Darwinian evolution.

The same aim—of ensuring that the teachers do not appear to be imposing their own personal positions on the classroom—animates and informs many of the other essays. Teachers are always conscious of external pressures, of course, as they prepare their lesson plans or lectures. The shadows of anxious administrators, concerned parents, and even litigants in the wings always fall in most classrooms. As Christopher Doyle points out, even if creative lessons can be developed to teach about sex, using “many of these would be problematic given the present climate,” especially because of parental complaints.

Students too can pose problematic challenges. As Trysh Travis indicates in her essay on teaching about abortion, that is a topic that “can start a fight in the classroom” Yet, she argues, there are ways in which the imaginative teacher can approach the topic in a noncontroversial manner.

Does the sexual orientation of the teacher and/or of the students influence the shape and content of a course, especially if the course itself is about LGBTQ history? This is the question that Vicki Eaklor (who describes herself as “openly gay”) addresses in her essay.

In an essay that complements that of Eaklor, Rachel Mattson tackles the problem of developing effective models for anti-homophobia education. Inherent in her essay is an element of attempting to shape thinking about the important distinction between what is “natural” and what is historically constructed. Such social construction of many aspects of life that are assumed to be natural and immutable is, in fact, as readers will discover, a thread that is woven through many of the essays, if not always explicitly.

James Coll and James Frusetta use different classroom techniques to essentially arrive at the same destination—that of using examples that go beyond the surfaces to challenge preconceptions. While Coll resorts to an imaginative use of U.S. Supreme Court cases to introduce students to controversies and arguments from multiple perspectives, Frusetta takes up the tension-filled history of genocide and ethnic cleansing but encourages his students to go beneath the moral issues, and to reconsider the very narratives they bring to the classroom.

The Vietnam War, distant as it is now, nevertheless seems to be both controversial and yet capable of offering useful lessons for making interesting connections in students’ minds, as the essays by Karl Benziger and Robert Cvornyek and Donna Alvah show.

If Vietnam can still evoke controversy out of the mists of time, how much more potent are the loaded images that come out of the Middle East, the theater of wars nearer in space and time? That is the challenge faced by Omnia El Shakry, who uses visual and textual material to suggest ways of questioning received stereotypes about Islam and terrorism. Again, much like Chamberlain and Millevolte, El Shakry found it “far more productive to allow students to interact themselves in a dialogical style of debate.” Such discussions can be tense, El Shakry points out, but in the end they train students to question “accepted narratives and easy generalizations.”

Discussion of a specific religion and its adherents may raise tensions in a class exploring the history of the Middle East. But discussion of any religion might, as Richard Schaefer argues, even as he points out that religion is crucial for grasping multiple aspects of history. He overcomes the problem of discussing in class what is often an intensely personal article of faith, by resorting to literary texts as well as primary sources, drawing from them the kinds of lessons that, he contends, could not be drawn from post facto interpretive histories.

Schaefer teaches in a university, and is thus discussing religion with older students. What of students at the secondary level? In taking up this problem, Keith Barton and Jennifer James focus on K–12 teachers rather than on the students, and argue that teachers need to be trained to understand the legal and constitutional implications as well as the historical role of religion. They also suggest that through a deeper understanding of religion’s role, teachers may become less reluctant to discuss that topic in their classrooms.

Laura Feller’s essay explores the challenges of dealing with controversial topics in an unusual “classroom,” a National Park Service site. She points out how in many ways the interpretive programs of the NPS are fundamentally different from the instruction students receive in classrooms, but that NPS sites have the potential to be havens for safe discussion of controversial issues.

Another unusual classroom is the museum. Writing about his experience as an intern at a small museum, Jonathan Post suggests that even the small steps that he saw there could have transformative implications for larger historical questions.

Finally, Alicia Decker’s essay grapples with the problem of teaching the history of war and violence in Africa without reinforcing stereotypes about Africans and of intrinsic propensities for violence. She brings to the surface and makes explicit an aspiration to make students “see the possibilities of utilizing historical knowledge to advocate for social change, perhaps even see history as an imperative to activism.”

The essays provide many insights into the various ways in which teachers at different levels are dealing with the thorny problems of teaching controversial topics. More importantly, perhaps, they also reveal that in classrooms across the United States (and elsewhere) courageous teachers are taking up a necessary Socratic burden and are, despite the long and minatory shadows cast from ancient Athenian academies (and sometimes from modern school boards), forging ahead to teach against the grain if necessary, but always thoughtfully and carefully, to advance student understanding of the past.

Pillarisetti Sudhir is the editor of Perspectives on History. He wishes to acknowledge the assistance he received from the editorial board for putting together the issue; help received from board member Debbie Ann Doyle with composition of this introductory essay; and associate editor David Darlington for copyediting some of the essays