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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.