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The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools

reviewed by David Lee Carlson & Joseph D. Sweet - April 16, 2018

coverTitle: The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools
Author(s): Jonathan Zimmerman & Emily Robertson
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 022645634X, Pages: 144, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com

From all indications, the public square in the United States is a contentious place. A cursory historical review of the United States reveals that peace is rather the exception than the rule. To be able to debate, discuss, and reflect on important civic, political, and economic matters remain a sine quo non of a democratic society. Public education, specifically the classroom, stands as the place where young adults learn how to weigh evidence, make rational arguments based on reliable data, and propose solutions to private and public concerns. The secondary school itself began under a shroud of contention primarily about funding. Over the years schools have done a more or less better job of preparing young adults to enter the public square.

Currently, we are witnessing the emergence of such grassroots organizations as Black Lives Matters, Gays against Guns, and #N0NRA movements to challenge social policies. Community organizing to protest legislation, or lack thereof represents a hallmark of social democracy. Although a few schools explicitly infuse social justice and activism in their teaching and curriculum, most schools drown in teacher-proof curriculum, standardized tests, and merit-based measures that tie teacher pay to student performance on tests. Such neo-liberal approaches to education have sanitized or limited the range of issues teachers can cover in classrooms and more importantly restricted to what extent teachers and students can debate controversial issues in the secondary classroom. Limiting the range of topics, restricting the level of debate indeed narrows the potential role of the pubic commons.

The recent publication from University of Chicago Press by Jonathan Zimmerman and Emily Robertson, The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools, offers a philosophical and historical overview of teaching controversial issues in secondary schools, with a specific focus on social studies education. The book suggests that schools give teachers more flexibility and credibility to teach controversial topics and provides some practical suggestions for how schools can involve the local community to decide on which topics to teach. It also suggests strategies for teachers to present, teach, and debate contentious issues in their classrooms.

Chapter One: "Introduction: The Controversy over Controversial Issues" strives to provide a framework for the topic. The authors seek to offer some precautionary guidelines for what constitutes a controversial issue. For example, they state, To merit discussion in the classroom, we argue an issue must be the subject of conflict among knowledgeable persons, and it must matter deeply to members of the general public (p. 2). The moral merits of racial segregation, for example, would not qualify under this definition because very few knowledgeable individuals would claim that it is a debatable issue to the general public. Gay marriage and whether local businesses can refuse to sell products for LGBTQ events would merit discussion as a controversial topic. More specifically, the authors assert that for a contentious topic to be discussed in a classroom, the topic must be contested by its most informed scholars (p. 2). Whether climate change is man-made is not a debatable issue because the overwhelming majority of scientists believe that humans play a significant role in climate change; however, how to ameliorate the devastating impact of climate change is an area of contention and should be debated in schools. Two final points in this chapter that are worth noting is that the authors claim that teachers need to model how to have debates on controversial topics and help students determine the role of the expert. In their view, the authors assert that an expert is someone who agrees on a basic set of facts regarding an issue, uses reliable sources of information, and bases their comments on a set of shared assumptions.

Chapter Two: "Historical Reflections: Teacher Freedom and Controversial Issues" traces the social and legal history of teaching contention in secondary schools. The chapter focuses primarily on the teaching of social studies. This exquisitely written chapter provides a solid historical overview, and illustrates the social and legal constraints teachers have been under throughout most of the history of education in the United States. With few exceptions, secondary school teachers have been limited in their capacity to teach controversial topics. Even when the state encouraged schools to engage in politically charged issues, such as during the late 1950s when 34 states permitted schools to discuss the perils of socialism and communism, teachers continued to avoid it (p. 29). According to the authors, teachers avoided speaking about controversial topics even when states gave them permission due to their own weak preparation in the subject (p. 29). As the authors assert:

As products of schools that either neglected communism or condemned it out of hand, [teachers] often knew little more about it than their students did. But they also feared that anything they did say on the subject could come back to haunt them. (pp. 2930)

In the 1960s, the authors proclaim, teachers in California attended professional development courses on how to teach controversial topics. These courses proposed topics relevant to personal growth rather than socio-political matters. The authors report that despite the inquiry-based focus of these courses, teachers still continued to teach secondary school subjects with traditional lecture-style methods. Legal decisions in the 1970s granted teachers greater freedom to examine political issues in schools, but as the authors consistently note that teachers remained hesitant to engage with these issues in their classrooms, even during times of intense political upheaval and with legal cover to do so. The 1980s witnessed greater conservative views in education, specifically regarding concerns for moral relativism and increasing abstinence only sex education programs. Also, we see the rise of teacher competency and certification examinations. Likewise, states begin institutionalizing standardized testing and other curriculum demands which cut into the classroom time for teaching controversial issues. The push to deprofessionalize the teaching profession ramped up in the 1980s and continues today.

Chapter Three: "Philosophical Reflections: Exploring the Ideal of Teaching Controversial Issues" unpacks in a very readable fashion the contours of what constitutes a controversial topic as well as offers a philosophical basis for teaching contention in classrooms. The authors frame their chapter with Thorndikes criteria for teaching controversial topics. An issue is maximally controversial when it satisfies all of Thorndikes criteria: (a) disagreement exists; (b) disagreement involves knowledgeable people; (c) disagreement is persistent with an emotional investment; and (d) disagreement involves matters relevant to the public.

The problems with Thorndikes criteria are that the public may consider an issue controversial even when it does not satisfy all of Thorndikes criteria and issues that experts disagree about may lack public interest. The authors devise their own criteria for what constitutes a controversial topic. They include:


Maximally controversial topics are those that satisfy all of Thorndikes criteria. Here the authors recognize the complexities with teaching these types of topics in schools, but they contend that teaching them fosters a sense of inquiry in schooling that exposes students to necessary practical and critical thinking skills as well an openness toward alternative views (p. 58).


Expert-Public disagreements. Here, students learn how to use expert evidence to make well-reasoned arguments and to distinguish between ideological claims and fact-based positions.


Disagreements among experts. Contention in this area teaches students about the nature of inquiry and sparks interest beyond rote knowledge. As the authors argue, Students must learn why a well-reasoned argument is different from a mere expression of opinion and hence that some interpretations miss the mark. Students must learn that ones opinion can be wrong (p. 51).

The authors claim that teachers should teach topics that fall within these three areas. They spend a considerable amount of necessary time on the teachers role in teaching controversial topics. They argue that teachers need the leeway to introduce contention in the classroom where they (teachers) can take a stand on the topic especially topics that are considered settled by experts as well as topics that prepare students for democratic life.

The pedagogical strategies to teach controversial topics in this chapter were particularly interesting. On this topic, the authors acknowledge that often how topics get taught can be more important to how they are received than the topic itself. The authors conclude the chapter with practical policy suggestions that school districts, national organizations, and local communities can enact to permit teachers the necessary safety measures to teach controversial topics in secondary schools.

Chapter Four: "Policy and Practice in Teaching controversial Issues" tackles the concerns with teachers injecting bias in classrooms. In this instance, the authors reiterate their position that controversial topics include those that involve disagreements of interest to the general public among knowledgeable individuals. Moreover, they assert that most people lack trust in teachers to properly teach controversial issues and current practices drench the secondary classroom with high stakes assessment and teacher-proof curriculum. As they claim, many school district administrators and parents in the local community muzzle teachers abilities to teach contentious issues. The authors summarize the matter succinctly as [teachers] have only as much academic freedom as their schools accord them, and schools may withdraw that freedom when they come under criticism (p. 94). To include the public in the policies and school protocol for teaching controversial topics is a brilliant solution to mitigate against the potential risks teachers face in secondary classrooms.

This book offers scholars in the humanities and education a pithy glance at the historical and epistemological issues related to teaching controversial topics in secondary schools. During a time when schools strive to continually scrub and sanitize classrooms from controversy as well as the impingement of standards based curriculum and high stakes testing, this book is a vital contribution to the overall debate about the importance of schooling in the United States. If schools prepare students to participate in the democratic commons, then teaching controversial topics is a necessary component to every classroom.

The criteria promoted by the authors of this text offers administrators, teachers, parents, and students appropriate guidelines for teaching contentious topics in schools. The historical overview illustrates the social and legal constraints on teachers and places in relief our current antipathy and even hostility toward allowing teachers to teach controversial topics even from a neutral stance. The book lacks an explicit discussion about the socio-economic factors that have both limited teachers abilities to teach content in classrooms as well as controversial topics in schools. The book could use a more robust discussion about political economic theory in Chapter Two (Historical Considerations). Neoliberal policies ushered in the 1980s would have provided a more well-rounded discussion about the problems teachers face in schools in the present moment. Despite these criticisms, the book provides clear reasons why secondary classrooms need to be spaces for contention and controversy rather than a space where teachers regurgitate sanitized, scripted curriculum geared toward preparing students for low-level thinking and high stakes tests. Quite the contrary: we must empower teachers with the trust, preparation, and training necessary for them to engage their students in controversial debate. This empowerment of teachers remains a necessary step in preparing students to participate in democratic life.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 16, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22332, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 5:26:13 PM

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About the Author
  • David Carlson
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    DAVID LEE CARLSON is an Associate Professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. He conducts research on Qualitative inquiry, methods of teaching English, and gender and sexuality studies.
  • Joseph Sweet
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    JOSEPH D. SWEET is a PhD student at Arizona State University whose research interests include pedagogies of gender equity in secondary English language arts, writing pedagogy, arts curriculum, qualitative inquiry, critical theory, and masculinities.
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