“What should students learn?” It’s the perennial question that has launched a thousand schools, and then some. While there is general agreement on the broad strokes of what’s worth teaching, the particulars of curricula have animated some of the fiercest debates in education. Yet a new survey suggests that Americans are less divided on the importance of teaching classically controversial issues (e.g. sex education and evolution) than one might imagine given the nation’s extreme political polarization.
In a recent report detailing the results of the August 2021 American Perspectives Survey, one of us (Nat) and our colleague Dan Cox reported Republicans’ and Democrats’ opinions on the importance of teaching eight topics to high school students that have historically divided Americans: How slavery and racial discrimination shaped American history, how human activity is contributing to climate change, sex education, evolution, religious liberty issues, the benefits of free-market capitalism, the role of Christianity in America’s founding, and LGBTQ identity and experience.
The report focused on the number of Republicans and Democrats who said that these topics were among “the most important” or “very important” to teach. This cut of the data showed significant divisions between Republicans and Democrats along predictable lines; for instance, only 44 percent of Republicans said that teaching students how slavery and racial discrimination shaped American history was one of the most important or very important issues to teach, compared to 88 percent of Democrats.
But discussing the data in these terms leaves out an important middle group: those that don’t consider a topic to be very important, but don’t oppose schools teaching that topic. Adding in that middle group of Americans — those who said a topic was “somewhat important” to teach — suggests greater room for consensus. Sticking with the slavery and racial discrimination example, 92 percent of Americans said that it was at least somewhat important to teach, with an overwhelming majority of Democrats (98 percent) and Republicans (86 percent) agreeing.
This agreement between Republicans and Democrats that “controversial” topics were at least somewhat important can be found in six out of the seven other issues respondents were polled on: religious liberty issues (98 percent of Democrats vs. 86 percent of Republicans), the benefits of free-market capitalism (81 percent vs. 93 percent), sex education (97 percent vs. 77 percent), evolution (92 percent vs. 67 percent), the role of Christianity in America’s founding (62 percent vs. 89 percent), and how human activity is contributing to climate change (99 percent vs. 67 percent).
The sole issue that a majority of Republicans and Democrats did not agree on was “LGBTQ identity and experience,” with 79 percent of Democrats saying it was at least somewhat important compared to only 33 percent of Republicans. (For more on the divisions over teaching LGBTQ issues, see Dan Cox’s piece here.)
The takeaway? Republicans and Democrats may not agree on the strength of the importance of learning about contentious issues, but, for the most part, they do share support for students learning about them. Given that both groups, 83 percent of Democrats and 72 percent of Republicans, believe public school teachers should discuss controversial subjects, it is important to acknowledge that there is significant common ground on which controversial issues should be taught. At a time when political divisions appear stronger than ever, it’s good to take a step back and recognize areas of agreement that can we can build on.