That is even truer today, as more and more parents have obtained college and graduate degrees. But secondary-school teachers—and, in particular, those who instruct social studies—still face uniquely sharp constraints, for reasons that Riesman spelled out over half a century ago: “High-school teachers can become labeled by their students as ‘controversial’ as soon as any discussion … gets all heated or comes close to home,” Riesman wrote. And the threat was greatest in social studies, which “both draws on what is in the papers and risks getting into them.” In many communities, that was simply too big a risk for social-studies teachers to take. So most of them taught what Riesman called “social slops”—a litany of clichés and pieties—and avoided anything controversial that could only get them in trouble with one part of the public or another. “They fear that to utilize ‘controversial issues’ in education exposes them to criticism,” wrote future Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a few years earlier. “This has produced a nagging insecurity which in turn has forced many teachers to abandon valid educational techniques.”
To be sure, many other school subjects—not just social studies—involve potentially controversial issues. Teachers across the curriculum have struggled to balance their duty to address these issues with the inevitable pressures to eschew them. In the 1920s and 1930s, for example, American high-school science teachers emphasized physics and chemistry but down-played biology. The reason was obvious: Unlike the other major sciences, one observer wrote, biology threatened to “acquaint high-school boys and girls with the theory of evolution.”
Citizen complaints have also restricted the forays of English teachers into controversial questions. Sometimes, teachers have been barred from assigning The Catcher in the Rye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or the other so-called “banned books” that raise hackles at school-board meetings across the country. Even when such works have been allowed, however, teachers often experienced sharp limits on discussing delicate themes in the texts—especially those surrounding sex. Finally, school-mandated sex education has also been a constant target of community objections. It has typically devolved to health- or physical-education teachers, who have often stripped their lessons of anything too explicit—or too controversial—for fear of alienating one parental constituency or another.
Laws, school officials, and community opinion have all conspired to prevent or discourage American teachers from discussing controversial issues in their classrooms. This is not to say teachers have always avoided such issues: In 1953, at the height of the Cold War, a survey of social-studies teachers in Ohio revealed they were leading classroom discussions about whether President Harry Truman should have seized steel mills, whether Truman should have fired General Douglas MacArthur, and whether—as MacArthur wished—the United States should have used an atomic bomb in the Korean War. That same year, in another survey, New York City teachers reported holding debates on whether “Red” China should have a seat in the United Nations, whether Communists should be allowed to teach in public schools, whether Julius and Ethel Rosenberg should have received the death penalty for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, and whether Senator Joseph McCarthy was “a menace to or savior of American democracy.”