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A history of taboo topics

The current battle in Tucson Arizona over Mexican-American course work necessarily brings us to a long-standing question: What should or should not be taught in America’s public schools?

According to Eduardo Duarte, an adjunct professor of Philosophy and Education at Colombia’s Teacher’s College and Philosophy Professor at Hofstra University, the ongoing Tucson saga is “just another flashpoint in America’s ongoing culture wars.”

To better understand the controversies of today, Need to Know looked back on a few of the taboo topics of the past and their current state in the battleground of Duarte’s “culture wars.”


The 1925 trial of substitute teacher John Scopes played a pivotal role in the public debate over the teaching of Evolution in both Tennessee schools and across the nation.

In the 1960 film rendition of the play “Inherit the Wind,” Spencer Tracey plays lawyer Clarence Darrow, who defended Scope’s teaching of evolution on the basis of freedom of speech. As the clip above illustrates, Darrow was gravely concerned about the implications of religion intervening in the sciences — an issue that remains at the heart of the debate between creationist vs. evolutionary theorists.

By the 1980s, creationist laws were established in the states of Louisiana and Arkansas, though they were eventually overturned as a violation of the First Amendment. Diane Ravitch, education historian and assistant to the Secretary of Education under the first Bush administration said by that time: “Creationists gave up the frontal attack on evolution and demanded equal time for creationism.”

Today the debate over the teaching of human origin continues to wage on. In the state of Louisiana, where a private voucher system has replaced the standard public school in many districts, creationism supporters can have their children attend schools where evolution isn’t taught.

According to Sarah Mondale, director of the film “School: The Story of American Public Education,” the charter system in Louisiana may present a fundamental flaw in the structure of public education.

“The public education system was created where a common body of knowledge was taught to everyone but then could be debated in the classroom. With free market alternatives to public schools, people will no longer be having these debates. Schools will focus on different themes and a common curriculum could be undermined.”

In Ravitch’s view, controversies surrounding the teaching of evolution have changed little since the Scopes trial. Yet the strategies taken by each side are rapidly evolving, as shown in the case of school books in Texas schools (video below).

Watch Is the Texas school board rewriting history? on PBS. See more from Need To Know.

Sex Education

In 1913, Chicago became the first major city to implement a sex education program in its high schools. Prior to this point, religious institutions were the primary teachers when it came to sex education in America. In 1948, biologist Alfred Kinsey released “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male”, the first large-scale study of the sexual histories and interests. The findings of the study shocked a large portion of the public ,but also furthered the educational inquiry into the science of sex.

By the 1960s, Congress established the Sexuality Information and Education Council to develop a body of literature on sex for high school health classes. The council met with fierce opposition from religious conservatives who questioned the school’s role in teaching sex. Furthermore, Ravitch said many parents’ were uncomfortable with open discussions about sex and didn’t want schools to discuss it either. In the early years of the 21st century, the battle shifted to a federal call for “abstinence only” sex education.

As sex education curricula continue to morph, critics of the current system are still concerned with the implications of an under-informed sexuality active youth demographic. According to the Center for Disease Control, in 2011 there were over 300,000 live births from teens 15-19 years old.

Religious teachings and other controversies

American schools have a similarly contentious history when it comes to whether or not religious concepts can or should be taught in public schools across the country. The issue is a fundamental part of the ongoing battle over the separation of church and state.  From the “pledge” to prayer in schools to religious symbols on T-shirts — the courts have been busy ruling the appropriate amount of “faith” in public schools. In Duarte’s view, Christian or biblical ideas can be taught — provided the context is appropriate.

“Creationism shouldn’t be taught in a science classroom if it doesn’t pass the test of the scientific method. But if it becomes a worthwhile topic to discuss, it belongs in a religious studies class, a philosophy class or maybe a class on literature.”

Recently conservative religious groups have lobbied hard against school curricula that would include climate change or LGBTQ issues. In Ravitch’s view, the social and cultural resistance to teaching LGBT issues in schools has been extensive. “Many conservative families fear that their children might become gay if they learn about homosexuality,” she said.

To read more about LGBT issues in schools, see “Law protecting gay students lacks enforcement mechanism.”

PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly offers an immense archive of reportage on faith in America.

We want to hear what you think. What are some of the topics that shouldn’t be discussed in schools? Or, are there issues you feel should be explored by students that are currently being brushed aside? Share your thoughts in the comments below or sound off on PBS Need to Know’s Facebook page.

March 4, 2013. Editor’s note: Correction issued. A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the actor in the 1960 film “Inherit the Wind.” Spencer Tracey, not Clarence Darrow, plays the character Henry Drummond, based on lawyer Clarence Darrow.


  • TK

    I do not feel that there should be separate curriculums for different cultures in the US, after all what makes us great is our melting pot of diversities and backgrounds. Why not address the issue with a history including all ethnic contributions, both the good and bad. We have sooooo many ethnic groups here in the US, and it would not be feasible to have separate classes for each, so bring us all together by including all those that contribute to this great country to keep it great.

  • Steven Kerens

    i agree but currently we have just the white ethnic studyes when studying the standard HS American or World History; we even see some romanticism for the south’s slave history! we need balanced curriculum that shows the multilple sides of our genocide of American Indians. how did the southwest become part of the US? The Mexican Wars of the 1840s represented crass imperialism on our part. The Indians and Mexicans living in that territory had no preference to join the Union or become an independent nation; they were happy to be Mexican. It was the White illegal immigrants who moved into Texas that caused the problem. There was not even the pretext of saving the population from dictatorship — it was just a land grab. The curriculum has to be balanced and honest. To the American Indian we are all illegal immigrants!!

  • Amanda

    After reading this article my mind went directly to my high school Health Education Class. I believe it is an issue when an educator does not believe in the material they are teaching. To me it is clear when an educator does not have a passion for the material. Sex education is a controversial matter today. As stated in the article, today the curriculum includes teaching “abstinence only” sex education. I think it is very difficult for an educator to put forth this moral value if he/she does not believe in it. There should be a line drawn of the material taught in school and what parents teach their children. There are cultures with different beliefs and I do not believe the education system should come between this.

    In reference to Kant and Foucault’s essays on Enlightenment, it is necessary to understand your own perspective in order to move past your biases and be a more philosophical and ethical person. Everything we do as part of the educational system needs to be done in an ethical fashion. Therefore, as a prospective educator I believe it is necessary to believe in the material being taught. Children can not be fooled! In my experience with early childhood education it is necessary to have a passion for books being shared with the children in order to keep them engaged. If I were asked to educate my students on a controversial subject I do not value I would work with the school to meet my values as well as theirs. Although it is necessary to be open minded I would not educate my students on material I do not agree with, but I would encourage my students to think for themselves and share their individual thoughts on the subject matter.

  • Eyton Shalom


  • ntk

    Hi Eyton, thank you for your comment. A correction has been issued. – NTK Editorial

  • unsustainability

    What is not made clear here is that in the cases citied an effort to overcome religious limitations on discussion were involved. In this Arizona case what is involved is advocacy for a very slanted view of history. In any case, what is taught in schools should reflect Oliver Holmes’s statement that “the best test of truth is its ability to get itself accepted in the open market.” Classes that minimize that have no place in U.S. schools.

  • unsustainability

    Apparently Steven has selective vision when he describes “land grabs.” as he clearly is advocating one now. And “honesty’ means taking the time to study history from all points of view, and not just an “ethnic studies” pov.

  • Shareef EL

    Well the “big bang theory” cant be proven either thus the term THEORY! So it should not be taught in a science class! That they wanted me to think I came from apes is one of many fallacies that failed to peek my educational interests. My thing is if we evolved from apes then why are apes still here?

  • Brian

    Shareef EL, highlights the problem:

    Sense she was not taugh natural selection (a theory which is the basis of modern economics, also), she does not know that we did not evolve from apes. We evolved from an earlier humanoid form, into Homo Erectus. We then killed-off other Humanoids (Neanderthals, et al) who where competing with us for resources.

    We are still evolving, and we always will be.

    Einstien theorized that until our mind evolves to the point where we agree that killing any animal is ‘beneath us’; we will still believe that it is OK to kill another Human.

    So, war and genocide will be with us for a long-time, yet; if we survive to see that day.

  • Erik

    Clearly, you are not educated on either the Big Bang nor the Theory of Evolution. You’re failing to recognize the difference between the everyday term “theory” and a scientific theory. In science, a “theory” refers to a concept that has been rigorously researched, written about, and scrutinized by all of the scientific community. By no means is a theory just a wild guess. In fact, if you did five minutes of googling, you would find a plethora of physical evidence for both the Big Bang and Evolution. As far as “coming from apes”, once again you obviously are not educated well enough on exactly what the theory of evolution is to speak on this matter. Evolution does not say that we descended from the apes we see today. But rather, we have common ancestors with the apes that are alive today. In fact, Evolution actually says that our ape-like ancestors cannot be alive today. I highly suggest being knowledgeable in a topic before speaking on it.