A high school social studies class is an area that can be a veritable minefield of controversial issues, and it is near impossible to organically avoid these issues. In fact, the route taken to avoid these issues may, instead, appear overt and forced. This is because social studies, especially at the secondary level and beyond, has many topics where controversial issues are unavoidable: how would a teacher teach World War II without teaching about the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Japan. The topic of the atomic bomb brings up a controversial issue, considering whether or not the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan was justified. In exploring a topic such as this in a high school classroom, the idea should be to help the students to develop their own ideas and reach their own conclusions.
The inherent problem with teaching controversial issues in high school is that these subjects are, naturally, sensitive topics. It may be difficult for a teacher, especially one who is new to teaching the content, to “tip-toe” through the issue without making any negative comments about the beliefs of any of the students. Even something as small as going to an anti-war demonstration or professing anti-war beliefs in class could be cause for suspension or ultimate dismissal of students, and in today’s classroom the topic of the current war is sure to come up, especially in a politics or social studies class. Teachers are expected to present a “fair and balanced” point of view when teaching about certain topics, including war and religion.
Teaching about these different controversial issues can be a real problem because each teacher and student (and parents!) have their own set of values, and it is impossible to completely eliminate all t races of bias from the instructor, no matter how long they have been teaching. Teachers are expected to remain “neutral” when teaching the students, but, again, it is impossible to remain completely neutral. Especially in higher level classes, more attentive students are often able to determine the political and religious beliefs of a teacher after a period of time, so attempting to hide any trace of bias is doomed for failure.
One of the solutions to this problem, which a lot of schools have adopted, is a policy to allow teachers to present their own position on such an issue, but they are also expected to state and explore how their opinion is only one in a large amount of acceptable positions. Teachers who are able to hide their bias more effectively from their students also assume the role of “Devil’s advocate,” meaning that, even if the viewpoint spoken about is not specifically the teacher’s personal viewpoint, the teacher will assume that viewpoint for the sole purpose of enhancing and driving discussion in the classroom and among the students themselves. This is particularly effective when there is no “right answer” (dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, religious warfare, etc.)
How far can controversial issues be taken? What is acceptable not only from the teacher but from the students as well? When does a controversial issue go from being healthy discussion to dangerous banter? President Barack Obama is an extremely divisive character in politics (a prospect not uncommon for most presidents), but when discussion of Obama goes from his politics to his race and heritage, what is a teacher to do in the face of blatant, un-academic , and unprogressive prejudice?
For the question of whether or not the atomic bombs should have been dropped on Japan, either answer can be correct, but the reasons for the answers can be very wrong. There are a number of acceptable reasons for why or why not the bomb should have been dropped, but there is an undeniable racial factor coming into play for the War in the Pacific. Controversial issues can be extremely hard to navigate, but not only are they impossible to avoid in a social studies classroom, but it is irresponsible to avoid them because of the academic importance they have.