Heather Lattimer: Teaching Tough Subjects

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In school districts across the country, debate rages about what to teach about sensitive subjects and how to teach it. Education Dean Heather Lattimer has this Perspective.

In recent months efforts to limit what is taught in public schools have escalated. Book bans, curriculum censorship and teacher surveillance may pose as parental engagement, but are really meant to silence ideas and weaponize information.

They stand in sharp contrast with my own experience.

When I was growing up, my father and I engaged in vigorous debates around the dinner table, often taking polar opposite positions on local and national issues. Sometimes those discussions led me to re-think my beliefs. Other times they reaffirmed them. Always they pushed me to learn and grow. And they strengthened the love and respect that my father and I felt for one another.

When I became a high school teacher, I worked to approximate those dinner table experiences in my classroom, providing space for my students to explore, analyze and debate. My goal was not to push a particular point of view quite the opposite. It was to help students learn to think critically, analyze complex ideas, synthesize new information and reflect on their own assumptions.


Some of the new laws attacking school curricula specifically ban students being made to feel uncomfortable. In my classes, students sometimes were uncomfortable with new information or a different perspective, but it was in those moments of discomfort that understanding grew. And just as around my family dinner table thoughtful, engaged debate helped to strengthen the community in our classroom and increased the respect and compassion that my students felt for one another.

At a time when the strength of our democracy is being tested and polarization is becoming increasingly entrenched, we need to cultivate discourse and engagement with complex ideas in public spaces. That includes our public schools. Instead of telling teachers what they can’t teach, we need to support them as they nurture students to become thoughtful, compassionate, nuanced thinkers.

Our democracy depends on it.

With a Perspective, I’m Heather Lattimer.

Heather Lattimer is dean of the Connie L. Lurie College of Education at San Jose State University.