America’s culture wars are playing out in the classroom, with near-daily headlines about attacks on school curriculum. Just about every subject has come under political fire, from math and reading to American history and gender studies.
Dozens of states have recently acted to limit how race and issues of racism can be discussed in schools. Efforts to reform math face backlash from both the right and the left. The so-called “reading wars” pit advocates of different approaches to teaching literacy against one another. On the heels of Florida’s 2022 “Don’t Say Gay” law, lawmakers across the country are pushing bills to limit public schools from addressing sexual orientation or gender identity. Book banning has surged to a level the American Library Association calls “unprecedented.”
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.”
Competing visions for the future
Michael Hines, an assistant professor at the GSE who teaches courses on the history of education in the United States and the history of African American education, spoke on the enduring politicization of the American classroom and curriculum.
The public school system has long served, he said, as “the mechanism through which societies reproduce themselves”– a role that makes schools a place where competing visions for the future are created and contested. He pointed to one example of schools becoming a battleground for competing visions: the Freedmen’s schools, built in the aftermath of the Civil War to educate formerly enslaved adults and children in the American South.
“The freed people saw education as a tool to protect their freedom and to secure the political and economic equality that would make that status meaningful,” he said. “White Southerners saw those same schools and curricula as a means of limiting and forestalling Black aspirations, and tying formerly enslaved people to a continued role as exploited labor. And white Northerners saw the schools as an opportunity to fill the roles of their various missionary societies and to prove themselves as Christian philanthropists – a goal that ultimately had little to do with supporting Black freedom.”
Curricular controversies largely revolve around perceived threats to the dominant narrative of American history, he said – which might lead to a “bargain” in which minoritized groups gain more of a place in the curriculum, “but only in ways that largely leave the fundamental assumptions of the grand narrative of American history in place.” Key figures or events might be added to textbooks, often physically separated in the text itself – addressed in color-coded boxes or a list of supplemental readings, he noted – “a clear indication that they’re not part of the central story.”
Debates over curriculum tend to focus on the content of what’s taught – who is represented, and the values and beliefs that are conveyed. Alfredo Artiles, the Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education at the GSE, called for expanding the debate to consider who gets access to the content deemed “worthy.”
“We classify folks, and then we decide they need certain things by nature of their condition,” said Artiles, whose work focuses on the intersection of disability with areas such as race, gender, language, and social class.
Despite significant progress in addressing the needs of students with disabilities, “we need to follow the classifications and the consequences,” Artiles said. “The assumptions we make in categorizing students is that [students with disabilities] require specialized interventions, and that we should be deploying very distinctive curricular differentiations to them.”
Patricia Bromley, an associate professor at both the GSE and the Doerr School of Sustainability, shared findings from her research into history, civics, and social studies textbooks from around the world dating back to the 1800s.
Most textbook content is not contested, she said; changes observed over time are primarily driven by an evolution in the culture more broadly. “When that shifts,” she said, “we have uncontested changes.”
Textbooks also appear to be less subject to change than other kinds of curricula. “They're somewhat insulated from politics in a way that school boards are not,” she said, because of the time-consuming and costly nature of the textbook production system.
The agency of teachers
In a case study on book banning, Wolf and Williamson walked participants through the events following a Tennessee school board’s 10-1 decision to remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Maus from the eighth-grade social studies curriculum last year.
“About 12 days [after the decision], the local paper, the Tennessee Holler, broke the story,” said Wolf. “They had to push hard to get the minutes from the school board meeting. But they broke the story, and then it took off on social media.” The book became so popular after the controversy that it quickly topped best-seller lists and sold out nationwide, prompting a new print run. Meanwhile, a Tennessee pastor in the same county responded by livestreaming a book burning on YouTube, destroying copies of Maus and other books deemed objectionable.
With conflicts playing out at the district level and beyond, the panelists spoke to the role and agency of teachers themselves.
“Teachers sit at the heart of this,” said Hines, a former middle-school teacher whose 2022 book, A Worthy Piece of Work, tells the story of a teacher whose groundbreaking Black history curriculum was adopted by the Chicago Public Schools in the 1940s. “No matter what curriculum comes down the pike, teachers are teachers. My mom, who was a fifth-grade math teacher, always told me: ‘I just close my door and teach.’ ”
Stevens hoped the two-night forum provided “some tools for making sense of the ubiquity of these conflicts in American life” and sparked further discussion, he said. “As educators, scholars, and teachers of teachers, it’s important for the GSE to keep these conversations going.”
This forum was supported by the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society; GSE programs in Policy, Organization and Leadership Studies (POLS) and International and Comparative Education (ICE), the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP); the Center for Comparative Studies of Race & Ethnicity; and the Stanford Education and Humanities Workshop.
Subscribe to our monthly newsletter.