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  • Logan Drake

A 20th Century Proposal for Handling Controversial Issues in the High School Classroom

During a recent trip to the University of Iowa Archives, I stumbled upon a neat document from the old University High School. From 1916 to 1972, the University of Iowa ran a six-year high school (what would now cover, more or less, 7th through 12th grade) on campus, staffed by faculty and graduate students. The Archives have all sorts of great material documenting the history of "U Hi," and its accompanying elementary school. The document I'm sharing today, unfortunately, was undated, so I can't position is in a historical context any more specific than "after 1916 and before 1972," but its content is surprisingly contemporary. If you've read my post on the importance of controversial conversations in the classroom, you'll already be familiar with the main points.

The two-page document, "A Proposal for a Policy Statement Regarding the Teaching of Controversial Issues in University High School," lays out an argument for why addressing controversial issues in the classroom is important, and how to do it well. I've included photos of it below, but I've also reproduced the text if you want to take a look:

A Proposal for a Policy Statement Regarding the Teaching of Controversial Issues in University High School

The faculty and administrative staff of University High School take the following position concerning the teaching of controversial subjects in the classrooms of the school:

  1. We believe that it is the function of a liberal education to unshackle and hone the mind, to open new doors of interest and insight for young people, and to stimulate inquiry and intellectual curiosity, not inhibit it.

  2. We believe that the study of problems which have not been solved, and of issues which have not been resolved are one means by which these purposes of a liberal education can be served. We believe that the classroom provides the best laboratory in which students can reinforce their ability to think reflectively and to extend their capacity for independent decision-making. Controversial topics with genuine educational content provide effective subject matter for these purposes.

  3. We believe, then, that responsible teachers have the freedom to teach just as students have freedom to learn. If freedom to teach is to be something other than a phrase more honored in the breach than in practice, however, the following conditions must be present:

  4. There must be community consensus on the philosophy expressed above;

  5. Teachers must have the security derived from a clear policy statement on the freedom to teach, issued by the responsible administrative agency;

  6. On some occasions common sense will dictate that an interval of time elapse between the time a topic is being emotionally considered by the public, and the time when a teacher can make a rational presentation of it in the classroom. This professional judgment should be made jointly by the teacher and the responsible administrator.

  7. We recognize that the rights involved in the freedom to teach bring with them concomitant responsibilities on the part of the teacher. We view these responsibilities as follows:

  8. The presentation must be intelligible. The teacher must ascertain the students' intellectual maturity and capabilities, and choose for study only topics which he feels reasonably certain they can understand;

  9. The presentation must be rational, that is, it must stress the use of reason rather than mere emotional appeal. The problem must be defined, and alternative points of view enumerated, analyzed, and supported with evidence;

  10. The presentation must be accurate, with enough back- ground to insure understanding of the historical development of the problem and the context in which it currently manifests itself. The teacher must give evidence of having command of the basic subject matter knowledge needed to understand the issue;

  11. The presentation must be adequate. Students must have ready access to study materials and enough class time must be available to do justice to the subject. The teacher must be prepared to provide additional data and interpretations as the discussion develops;

  12. The presentation must be fair. The teacher must permit all relevant points of view to be presented, without, however, allowing every argument equal emphasis regardless of its merit. Complete impartiality and objectivity on the part of the teacher is an illusion, and nothing is gained if the teacher pretends to be neutral and devoid of opinions. The critical point is that he must be willing to subject his views to the same searching and critical analysis which he demands that his students bring to the study of other facts and views. Under no circumstances is he free to impose his own moral imperatives on his students, or to penalize in any way students who do not accept his views;

  13. We recognize, finally that the student teaching function of University High School raises special problems. We believe the basic freedom to teach extends to the apprentice teacher. Since the ultimate responsibility for instruction rests with the regular teacher, however, it is his judgment which must prevail when there is a difference of opinion between the student teacher and the supervising teacher as to how a controversial subject shall be handled in the classroom.

It is our conviction that, within a framework such as this, the discussion of current and controversial issues becomes an essential element in instruction of quality and excellence.

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