How can we lessen the horrible frequency of sexual assault in colleges? The New York Times wants us to start in middle school. Their proposal suffers from a terrible case of Manhattan-itis.
NYT editors pointed to studies from Illinois and New York that seem to bolster their case. When kids learn to communicate their feelings, when they learn explicitly about safe places and violence, the amount of “sexual harassment” and “inappropriate touching” drops.
It makes sense to me personally. As a teacher and a parent, I’ve seen the positive results when young people learn to speak openly and frankly about all aspects of sex.
But as a historian, this proposal seems to willfully ignore reality. The NYT editors note that “some parents may object to their children learning about sexuality in middle school and even before.” Yet they seem not to worry about such predictable objections. If such programs succeed in the Netherlands, the editors assert, they can work here.
As I argued in my recent book, folks like these NYT editors (and me) have always woefully misunderstood the true political and cultural equations of schooling in the US of A. Things that may seem possible in a clinical trial are just not possible on a wider scale.
Consider just a few examples from recent history. In March, for instance, Kansas considered a law that would open teachers to prosecution for teaching children about sex—even from an approved sex-ed curriculum. That’s right: Teachers who taught explicit sexual terms could be prosecuted as sexual predators if they taught their classes as those classes were designed to be taught.
This is not just another case of something being the matter with Kansas. Last summer, parents in the San Francisco Bay Area protested about a sex-ed textbook that taught their middle-schoolers about sex. The problem was not that the textbook was not accurate. The problem was not that the material might not help students get a fuller and better understanding of sexuality.
The problem, rather, was more fundamental. Parents in these United States do not want their children to learn about sex in an explicit way. They do not want their children to know about rape, sexual assault, and other things.
And this is the problem with the New York Times editorial. The central question is not whether or not such programs are effective. The central question is not whether or not such programs work in the Netherlands. Rather, the most important question—and one that the New York Times sidesteps—is how to implement such programs in the face of the predictable and powerful opposition they are sure to elicit.
We have a difficult time understanding a seeming paradox: Americans want their schools to do more than teach kids things that are true. In many subjects, Americans insist that their schools help keep children ignorant. Or perhaps a better term is innocent. Sex, evolution, lynching . . . there are a host of truths that public schools are meant to un-teach. Not only can schools not do a good job teaching these things frankly and fairly, but in practice—considering the political realities—many schools are expected to do a good job of keeping children ignorant of such things.
Rule of thumb: schools won’t do anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable doing in a formal toast at a church wedding. Is it possible to use such a platform to speak frankly about sexual assault? Yes, and in some schools (and some weddings) it is done. But by and large such tactics are not considered acceptable by Americans. Teaching a child to say “vagina” and “penis” is difficult enough. Any hope to convince parents of the need to teach kids to say “rape” and “sexual assault” must be far more fraught with difficulty than the New York Times admits.