Often it is a particular novel. Sometimes it is a unit in a history class. It could be something as mundane as a certain discussion topic during a single class. Whatever it may be, we read and hear frequently about “controversial” curriculum in our public schools. The question we must ask is a simple one: Are these episodes a sign that our schools are doing something wrong—or something very right?
No one, of course, enjoys having their beliefs or opinions questioned. Most of us believe we have a functional and—quite frankly—an admirable system of values that we hope others will accept and emulate. Every parent knows what is right and what is wrong. Every parent knows how best to live one’s life. Every parent hopes their child follows their life example when grown.
Of course, every parent—indeed, every citizen of our great country—also should understand that what everyone “knows” is not precisely the same. We have only to look at our recent Presidential election and the vast differences between the candidates and their followers to know just how different perceptions of the “right” beliefs can be. A huge component of the glory of our humanity is the wide variety of our experiences and the value systems these experiences shape. We forget this basic truth at our own risk, and we risk much if we forget to nurture it in our children.
Education, if it is to be worth the name, is going to challenge cherished beliefs. If you think back to the not too distant past, our ideas about science, world cultures, religion, politics, literature, gender and racial relations, technology, economics, and a host of other topics have undergone a transformation as profound as any one can imagine in the course of just a few generations. This did not come about because each generation passively accepted the habits and beliefs of their elders. Progress is a messy—and sometimes profoundly insulting—process that demands much of us.
In order to grow as individuals and as a society, Americans must support efforts in our schools to challenge accepted wisdom and encourage our students to think about the most basic precepts upon which we order our lives. It does not take much imagination to conjure up a vision of where our world would be if the accepted wisdom of only a half century ago were still the norm. Every facet of our lives would be so profoundly different than what we experience today that it would be nearly as impossible to imagine as life on some distant planet—a future which right now some child in America is scheming to create, by the way.
It goes without saying that to exist as a society certain basic truths must be, as our Founding Fathers would have put it, “self-evident”. However, what was self-evident to those men—that some human beings could count as only 3/5 of a person and that women had no right to vote—has changed more than a little during the life of our country. In just the last few months we witnessed both a woman and an African-American battling for the highest elected office in the land, and surprisingly few Americans seemed to find it all that incredible to behold.
Perhaps we can give just a bit of the credit to our public schools for helping to build the road we now walk through the books that were read, the historical truths challenged, and the “controversial” discussions in classes over the past 50 years of relatively solid support for the idea of schools as places where children where sent for a challenging educational experience. Let’s not forget that disagreement and dissent is the lifeblood of democracy, and let us remember the importance of encouraging this vital quality in our schools.