To dig more deeply into these controversies and more, Stanford students, faculty, and community members gathered for “Contentious Curriculum,” a two-part forum led by the Graduate School of Education (GSE) on March 7 and 8. The event, held at the Center for Education Research at Stanford, featured talks by GSE faculty and a town-hall dialogue about the past, present, and possible future of conflicts over curriculum.
Mitchell Stevens, a sociologist and professor at the GSE, organized the event along with Jennifer Wolf, a senior lecturer and director of undergraduate programs at the GSE; Peter Williamson, an associate professor and former faculty director for the Stanford Teacher Education Program; and GSE doctoral student Abigail Miller.
“GSE faculty are frequently called upon to write and review curriculum. We advise education officials. We train future teachers,” said Stevens. “It seemed incumbent on us to take these current curricular conflicts seriously – and to provide support for one another, as education professionals who are often at the front lines.”
Conditions for controversy
Conflicts over curriculum are nothing new, dating back at least a century to what’s commonly referred to as the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” a 1925 case contesting the legality of teaching evolution in science classes in Tennessee schools. What makes school curriculum such a flashpoint for controversy?
For one thing, said Stevens, the curriculum represents what’s considered “official” knowledge – and it can’t contain everything.
“Every single curricular decision is an act of exclusion,” he said. “Some stories, some facts, some concepts will be made central, even compulsory. Many others will be excluded.” The need to limit curriculum content, even if only to accommodate the time constraints of the school year, creates conditions ripe for conflict, he said.
Another factor is the lack of a centralized authority determining what U.S. schools teach, said Stevens. There are more than 16,000 school districts in the United States, each charged with making their own decisions about curriculum. “The sheer scale and distributed character of American K-12 education means there are a lot of places where conflict can happen,” he said.
The religious nature of the United States – and its religious plurality – also contributes to the emergence of these conflicts, Stevens said. A 2018 survey found that 40 percent of Americans felt the Christian Bible doesn't have enough influence on American culture. “But another quarter say the Bible has too much influence on American culture,” he said. “So [we] have strong beliefs about the importance of certain Biblical texts on both sides.”
Some conflict can be attributed to the fact that schools and families are both legally responsible for children, he said. Ideally, parents’ and teachers’ ideas of their children’s best interests coincide – but that’s not always the case. What’s more, Americans have historically tended to be more distrustful of public authorities than their counterparts in other countries, Stevens said. “To the extent that families and schools share responsibility for the tasks of raising children, you have a built-in condition for conflict.”