What We Don’t Know about School Is Killing Us

If someone is running toward a cliff, what should you do?  You might grab them.  You might yell at them to stop.  If you had time, you might build a wall to block them from certain death.  What would a school do?  Make available a brochure clearly describing the dangers of falling off cliffs.

It’s a stupid analogy and I’m sorry about that.  But it is not too far from the truth about school and the dunderheaded way we Americans tend to think about the relationship between school and education.  People tend to think school is a place where students line up and receive necessary information.  They think that making information mandatory in school means that they have successfully educated the populace.  That’s not really how it works and our society’s ignorance about it is literally a life-or-death problem.

Here’s the latest example: According to Politico, several states have passed new laws mandating education in public schools about the dangers of opioid addiction.  No one doubts the dangers of such drugs.  Nor do we dispute the notion that government can and should take action to help solve the problem.  We don’t even argue that schools can’t play a central role.

Too often, though, even in these sorts of life-and-death situations, government officials think they can solve problems by simply cramming new mandatory topics into school curriculums.  They think that by mandating school-based classes about opioid addiction, they have successfully educated children about it.

Consider the efforts in Michigan, for example.  Like people in a lot of states, Michiganders are rightly concerned with the dangers of opioid addiction, especially among young people.  State Senator Tonya Schuitmaker has proposed a bill to introduce information about opioids into the state’s required health curriculum.  As she puts it, “Our youth, they need to become educated upon the addictive nature of opioids.”

Fair enough.  But Senator Schuitmaker and others like her seem to be stubbornly resistant to the depressing truth.  Putting information into mandatory school curriculums does not equal education.  Just passing a law requiring schools to deliver certain information does not mean that young people have been educated about it.

That’s just not how it works.

The evidence is obvious and irrefutable for anyone who bothers to look.

Consider the case from the world of sex education.  As Jonathan Zimmerman argued in his terrific recent book Too Hot to Handle, the AIDS crisis in the 1980s prompted a uniquely American response.  In Scandinavia, governments embarked on a broad program to encourage condom usage and discourage risky sexual behaviors.  In the United States, in contrast, governments mandated information about HIV be included in school health classes. zimmerman too hot to handle

It didn’t work.  And it won’t, because in spite of what so many of us think, school curriculums are not the same thing as education.  Where do people learn about sex?  Not—NOT—from their fifth-grade Gym teacher.  No matter how comprehensive a sex-education curriculum is, no matter how carefully a state legislature insists that sex-ed classes must include true information about HIV, most young people will learn far more about sex and HIV from other sources.

We could give more examples if we needed to.  As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found when it came to teaching evolution in public schools, mandating evolution in state curriculums was not the most helpful factor.  Rather, teachers tended to teach what their community believed, no matter what the state-mandated curriculum included.

Evolution Creationism Berkman Plutzer

The same is true with the equally desperate problem of opioid addiction.  Simply cramming mandatory information about the dangers of opioids into health curriculums will not do anything to address the real problem.  It is the equivalent to the stupid analogy I started with: printing up brochures about the dangers of cliffs when someone is running straight toward one.  Mandating that those brochures be made available to every student in every public school.

This does not mean that schools cannot play a vital role in real education about the dangers of opioids.  Consider the much smarter example of West Virginia.  In that state, school-reform efforts take a much wiser view.  How are Mountaineer schools responding to the dangers of opioid abuse?  For one thing, they are paying for programs that will educate more drug counselors and encourage them to stay and work in West Virginia.  They are funding programs that help addicts deal with the full complexity of their addictions.  They are even rehabbing old schools and turning them into comprehensive treatment centers.

Such programs are much more expensive than simply mandating “coverage” of opioid information in public-school health classes.  But unlike fast-and-dirty curricular solutions, such programs actually stand a chance of helping addicts and potential addicts.

When it comes to life-and-death problems such as opioid addiction, simply insisting that schools add new curriculum is a cowardly and ineffective approach.  It only serves to let lawmakers brag that they have addressed the issue, when in fact they have done nothing at all.

Are the Culture Wars History?

I don’t get out much. So when I was invited to participate in a panel at the annual meeting of the History of Education Society, I jumped at the chance. Especially when it gave me the chance to rub shoulders with some nerd all-stars.

Meet me in Saint Looey...

Meet me in Saint Looey…

Our panel will include four authors of books familiar to SAGLRROILYBYGTH. First, Jon Zimmerman will tell us something about global sex ed from his new book, Too Hot to Handle.zimmerman too hot to handle

Then, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela will keep the sex-ed ball rolling while adding in some bilingual ed as she talks about her book, Classroom Wars.petrzela classroom wars

Next, Andrew Hartman will share some insights about education and culture wars from his blockbuster War for the Soul of America.Hartman

Last, I’ll talk a little bit about what it has meant to be “conservative” when it comes to education, from my new book.

What will we talk about? Hard to say until we get there, but the theme that ties these books together is that of educational culture wars. What have Americans (and people worldwide) seen fit to teach their kids about touchy subjects such as sex and God? Who has been allowed to make decisions about school?

One disagreement we might have could be about the winners and losers. If there are such things as educational culture wars, we all have different conclusions about who has won. Jon Zimmerman argues that kids overall—especially in the United States—get very little sex ed, due to consistent activism against it. I think, too, that conservatives have been able to exert veto power over many big educational programs. Both Andrew and Natalia, though, say that by and large progressive ideas have come out the winner in these battles.

What do you think:

  • Are there such things as educational culture wars?
  • If so, are they all in the past?
  • And, maybe most interesting to most people…who won?

Fundamentalist Colleges Save Lives

Maybe they were right. One of the hallmarks of conservative evangelical colleges has always been a clampdown on student behavior. The goal was to protect student morals, but a side benefit seems to have been protecting student health. A new study finds…surprise, surprise…that smoking pot and binge drinking lead to more risky sex among undergrads.

A hundred years ago, conservative evangelical Protestants reeled from the horror stories oozing out of America’s elite colleges. Fundamentalist preachers warned their flocks that colleges in the 1910s no longer protected students’ faith or morals. As a result, fundamentalists founded their own network of rigidly conservative schools. In addition to fundamentalist theology, all of these colleges adopted draconian rules for students: No smoking, no dancing, no drinking…and certainly no unmarried sex.

The view from 1931, Bob  Jones-style.

The view from 1931, Bob Jones-style.

As I work on my new book about the history of these schools, I’m struggling to make sense of these ubiquitous student rules. It’s easy enough to find the paper trail in the archives. At Bob Jones College, for example, founder Bob Jones Sr. placed the burden of avoiding sex on women.

Jones explained his thinking in an open letter from the 1920s:

The Bob Jones College discourages extravagance in dress AND INSISTS UPON MODESTY.

We request our girls to wear simple dresses in classes. We have a laundry where these dresses can be laundered.

The girls in the Bob Jones College voted to wear their dresses two inches below the knee cap. This is short enough for style and long enough for decency.

The girls in the Bob Jones College last year had the reputation of being the most attractive group of girls in the country, and as a whole, they dressed very simply.

There is one regulation which we wish our girls to thoroughly understand. WE DO NOT ALLOW OUR GIRLS TO WEAR EACH OTHERS CLOTHES. The only exception is in the case of sisters.

Bob Jones College was not alone in the effort to control sex by controlling women. One student who attended Wheaton College in the 1920s remembered a similarly strict regime of sexual policing. “Well,” this former student remembered in a 1984 interview,

The control was rather tight. Of course, that was in those days when . . . when the separation of the sexes was very strict, and the . . . the regulations were . . . dress regulations and so forth were quite strict.

Did students find ways to get around these rules? Of course. It’s harder to find, but as I delve into the archives of these colleges I find examples of students being punished for drinking, smoking, attending movies, and, of course, hooking up. One student at Bob Jones College was caught climbing out of his girlfriend’s dorm window at midnight. He said they had been praying together. A student at Wheaton remembered his roommate speaking to his girlfriend through a system of prison wall-taps.

All in all, though, the draconian system of student rules meant a different campus experience than at non-fundamentalist colleges. Over the years, the rules have loosened up, but they remain more restrictive than at other schools.

What has been the result? On the one hand, the system of sexual policing seems to pushed sex on campus into dangerous and degrading directions. Bob Jones University, for example, admitted its terrible and terrifying record of ignoring and even tacitly encouraging sexual abuse and victimization.

But we can’t help but think that stricter rules against drugs and alcohol must do something to protect students, as well. Don’t get me wrong: I’m no apologist for evangelical universities. I’m not evangelical myself; I don’t work at an evangelical college; I don’t dream of a school in which students don’t use drugs or have sex.

However, there seems to be demonstrable evidence that drinking and using drugs leads to risky behaviors. The researchers at Oregon State found direct connections between smoking pot, binge drinking, and unhealthy sexual practices. Students who used more drugs on any given day were more likely to have sex without a condom, for example.

The stricter rules about drugs and sex at evangelical colleges were put in place to protect student morals, not their health. As I’ve argued before, if we want to understand conservative attitudes about sex, we need to shift out of the medical mindset. However, perhaps there has been a positive side-effect.

I would love to see a study like this in which researchers looked at student behavior at a variety of schools. Did school rules against booze and sex discourage risky behaviors? Or did the added illicitness simply push students to take more risks?

Required Reading: Classroom Wars

What should schools teach?  How should they teach it?  Who gets to decide?  These are the questions that keep SAGLRROILYBYGTH up at night, and now we have a great new book to shed light on the infinitely complicated ways they play out in real life.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s new book, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture examines battles in California over bilingual ed and sex ed during the 1960s and 1970s.  As Petrzela explains,

This book focuses on bilingual (Spanish-language) and sex education in California in order to understand how grass-roots citizens came to define the schoolhouse and the family as politicized sites during the late 1960s and 1970s.

Full disclosure: Petrzela and I are friends and colleagues.  We’ve worked together for several years now, and we’ll be doing some presentations together in upcoming months at academic conferences about history, education, and culture wars.  Even if we weren’t friends, though, I would love this book.   petrzela classroom wars

For one thing, Petrzela’s careful examination of California’s educational politics shows us the ways culture-war politics are not somehow “natural,” but rather develop over time due to specific historical circumstances and activism.

For example, as she describes, in the early 1960s bilingual ed had lots of support among conservatives.  Arch-conservative Max Rafferty pushed for it, and even as late as 1968, many California legislators touted bilingual ed as the “American thing to do.”  Soon, however, bilingual education was tied together with leftist radicalism.  Students in 1968 staged huge “blow-out” protests in LA, carrying “Viva la Revolucion!” signs and demanding that all Anglo teachers be fired.  As Petrzela puts it,

In the two years following the BEA’s [Bilingual Education Act] passage and the blowouts [student walkouts], bilingual-bicultural education evolved from a relatively uncontroversial issue that garnered significant bipartisan support to a lightning rod dividing and defining conservatives and liberals.

Among activists, too, we need to be careful before we assume too much.  In the education bureaucracy of California, for instance, Petrzela introduces us to the complicated positions of folks such as Eugene Gonzalez, associate superintendent and chief of the division of instruction.  Gonzalez was close with conservative leader Max Rafferty, and like Rafferty he spoke out against the methods used by radical student protesters.  But he also continued to push for better and fairer education for latino/as in California schools.  Other Mexican-American activists, such as Alfred Ramirez, refused to go along with the protesting students at all.  He pushed Gonzalez to crack down on the Latino protesters and to get rid of bilingual programs entirely.

Nor were California’s educational culture wars a simple, stereotypical battle between progressive teachers and students on one side against conservative activists on the other.  That may often be the case, but as Petrzela recounts, in 1970 conservative teachers in LA founded their own union, the Professional Educators of Los Angeles.  And, though one conservative teacher lamented her position as a “minority among educators,” Petrzela also reveals that students, too, were split.  In at least one case, a group of conservative students gathered to denounce the “leftist-liberal bias” of their teachers.

We also see in these pages a clearer-than-usual vision of what conservative activists wanted.  At root, Petrzela shows us, conservatives felt as if they had too often been frozen out of discussions of sex ed and bilingual ed.  They felt they had not been included, not been consulted.  Many times, conservative activists and parents worried that a blundering school administration was trying to insert itself between parents and children.

When this wasn’t the case, many conservatives did not protest against sex education.  In conservative San Diego County, for example, sex ed was not at all controversial.  Part of the reason was because the teachers had a strong reputation in the whole community as family women with “high moral standards.”  By the end of the 1970s, Petrzela tells us, policy-makers had figured it out.  By then, most sex ed curricula were no longer so ferociously controversial, largely because parents and conservative organizations had been consulted beforehand.

Petrzela also tackles one of the toughest questions of these educational culture wars: Who won?  She argues that over all, over time, progressives tended to score victories.  In about half the cases of controversy over sex ed, Petrzela found, California districts actually expanded their sex ed programs after the blow-ups.

In every case, Petrzela makes her case well that schools matter.  As she puts it,

In the 1960s and 1970s, militant Chicanos in East Los Angeles, suburban housewives in Anaheim, and political aspirants as varied as Max Rafferty and Julian Nava all pinned their hopes on the public schools as the primary institution for cultivating an ethical, informed, moral next generation.

For all of us who want to look beyond the headlines of America’s continuing educational culture wars, this book is a good place to start.

Socialists, Laggards, Perverts, and Baby-Killers

Why does everybody these days thank soldiers for their “service?” Even when the soldiers themselves don’t like it? At least in part, it must be a hangover from Vietnam-War-era culture-war battles, when soldiers were reviled as “baby-killers.” Here’s my question for SAGLRROILYBYGTH: When will teachers get thanked for their service? After all, for decades, teachers have been called names at least as bad as “baby-killers.”

As I described in my recent book, conservative activists have always accused teachers of terrible crimes and treasons. Teachers fill kids’ heads with lies about evolution, atheism, and communism. Teachers subject innocent young kids to mistruths and calumnies about American history and sex. Such accusations were a standard part of culture-war scripts from the 1920s through the 1980s.

Warning!  Commie Teachers!

Warning! Commie Teachers!

In the 1980s, for instance, Mel and Norma Gabler warned that the ranks of the teaching profession were full of “practicing homosexuals” who hoped to attract young children to their ranks. Such teachers pushed for more sex ed because they suffered from a perverted desire to lure children down the path to sexual sin and depravity.

There’s nothing new about this sort of no-holds-barred accusation against America’s teaching force. Back in 1923, anti-evolution activist T.T. Martin warned audiences about the sinister nature of public-school faculties:

under the cowardly sissy plea of ‘Academic freedom,’ [teachers] demand that we, with our taxes, pay their salaries, while they poison our children against the Bible as God’s real Word, and the Saviour as God’s Son who died for our sins to redeem us from all iniquity and send our children out into Eternity without real redemption; hence, to hell.

This week, I’m reading Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s terrific new book Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture. Petrzela looks at the ways the fights over sex ed and bilingual ed played out in California between 1960 and 1990. Not surprisingly, she found that teachers were subjected to vicious, unrestrained attacks.

One parent, for instance, excoriated his local school’s teachers, saying they “fill schools with dope and filth and sex” and “teach [students] to make babies so they can kill them” (pg. 123).

Ouch.

As Petrzela relates, however, such extreme accusations were par for the course in culture-war battles over education in California.

So, dear readers, here’s my question for you: When will progressive types begin to thank teachers ostentatiously for their service? After all, it was backlash against the “baby-killer” accusations that led people to start thanking soldiers. Won’t there soon be a similar surge of support for beleaguered teachers? Or is there already and I’m just the last to notice?

We can see some glimmers of it. Progressive bloggers and scholars such as Diane Ravitch, Mercedes Schneider, and Peter Greene make a fetish of valorizing public-school teachers. Will it soon become an article of faith among progressives that teachers are America’s real heroes? Or has it already?

Sex In, Kids Out

Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park Elementary School started its year half empty. Why? Parents were concerned that students would gain knowledge, so they pulled their kids out in protest.

Will Toronto parents trust the public school?

Will Toronto parents trust the public school?

It sounds weird when we say it that way, but it is true. In this case, parents worried that a new sex-ed curriculum imposed by the provincial government would expose kids to too much information, too early. In some ways, the story is a repeat of a familiar culture-war pattern. In others, it shows how things are changing.

First, the facts: Last spring, the Ontario government released its new health curriculum. Outraged parents organized to protest against the content. As one protesting parent put it last spring,

I want my kids to come home from school and play with toys, not their body parts. . . . Why are we introducing these concepts to kids who aren’t even old enough to tie their shoelaces?

As schools opened this fall, parents continued their protest, nearly emptying one elementary school and holding protest school meetings in a park across the street. An unknown protester spray-painted “Shame On You” on the school building.

In some ways, this protest is playing out the familiar culture-war script we saw throughout the twentieth century. As I argued in my last book, time and again conservative parents insisted on their right to decide what their kids should be taught about sex.

We also see a familiar fight over the terms of the debate. What is actually in the curriculum? Protesters in Toronto have distributed fliers warning that kids are encouraged to have sex, encouraged to masturbate and to exhibit their full anatomy to friends and strangers. Not so, reply the writers of the curriculum. In earlier protests, such as the school boycott in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in 1974-75, protesters distributed similar fliers making similarly inflated claims about the content of controversial textbooks.

Another familiar sight is the undercurrent of traditional pedagogy. Yes, the protesting parents are teaching their children in a park, but they are also imposing a traditional style of teaching. One volunteer teacher, for instance, expressed surprise that the seven- and eight-year-olds in her group had never been taught basic sentence structuring. Not only did she teach her makeshift class without any reference to sex, but she also imposed a more traditional style of teaching grammar.

But Toronto’s school-sex boycott is also different in some ways. Instead of the whitebread “100% American” protests of the twentieth century, this protest largely emanates from the Muslim community. Parents are defending their right to have a say about the curriculum. They are also insisting that school lessons must not conflict with their religious values. In this case, though, those religious values are not the implicit Protestantism that we see so often here in the United States. Rather, in this neighborhood of Toronto, the traditional values being defended are those of Islam.

Keep em innocent...?

Keep em innocent…?

Perhaps most telling, this protest underlines one of the central truths of public schooling. Though it seems weird to say it, parents assume that schools must keep certain forms of knowledge away from their kids. In this case, parents do not say that the sex-ed curriculum is untrue. Rather, they only insist that it is too early for their kids to know such things, or that such knowledge conflicts with their religious values. As this widely circulated photo suggests, protesters want their kids to be kept “innocent” of some forms of knowledge.

What is school for? Not only to spread knowledge, but also to protect certain forms of ignorance.

Why Schools Can’t Stop Terrorism

Imagine it in reverse: Take a group of 13-year-olds.  Any group, anywhere in the US of A. Have them watch one hour every six months of ISIS propaganda videos.  How many of them do you think will turn into Islamic militants? Pretty close to none, I’d guess. Yet when it comes to SOLVING violent crime, terrorism, STDs, drug abuse, or nearly any other social ill, that is just the sort of approach some well-meaning but poorly informed pundits continue to suggest.

It’s always possible, of course, that some students might find the videos so compelling that they’d join ISIS. But those students would have come from some sort of background that pushed them toward that decision in advance. There’s no way a couple of isolated hours of school videos could CREATE terrorists. The most they could do—in very unusual cases—would be to encourage some kids to follow through on decisions they had already made.

Yet throughout American history, reformers have blithely assumed that they could create any social reform they wanted, simply by slapping one or two hours of mandatory instruction into the public-school curriculum.

An hour of prevention is not a cure...

An hour of prevention is not a cure…

As Jonathan Zimmerman points out in his excellent new book Too Hot to Handle, this sort of mindset is quintessentially American. In the beginning of the twentieth century, for example, the USA and European nations all discovered a social problem. Too many men were visiting prostitutes and coming home with nasty sexually transmitted diseases. European governments responded by making new laws about hygiene and prostitution. American governments, instead, responded by adding mandatory sex-ed to public-school classes. The only way to end prostitution, Americans assumed at the time, was to play the “long game” and educate young people about its dangers.

American readers of a certain age might join me in remembering a similarly silly attempt to eradicate drug abuse in these United States. How? By adding mandatory DARE meetings to classrooms nationwide. (I honestly can’t remember what DARE stood for, since we all only called it “Drugs Are Really Excellent.”)

Now maybe, somehow, somewhere, there have been young people who have seen the light after a forty-five minute presentation in the gym about syphilis or meth. But in general, I think it’s safe to say that such messages can only hope—at the very best—to confirm students in decisions they’ve already made.

How NOT to end drug abuse...

How NOT to end drug abuse…

Yet there are still folks out there who assume that we can make real changes by inserting a class here or there about morals, hygiene, or politics. This week pundit Charles Haynes of the Religious Freedom Center offered a warmed-over recipe for solving our addiction to violence.

What do we do when ISIS and neoconfederates plant head-turning propaganda on the interwebs? Counter it with classes in tolerance and anti-racism. Haynes recommends two curricular add-ons: the Teaching Tolerance program of the Southern Poverty Law Center and Face to Faith from the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

I’m not opposed to such programs. I don’t know the Face2Faith approach, but I’ve worked with the Teaching Tolerance materials, and they’re good. The problem, rather, is that too many people like Mr. Haynes think that by slapping such one-off workshops into regular public schools, we’ve somehow solved the problem.

It just doesn’t work that way. Education is not a simple commodity that can be packaged and shipped. Just like sex ed or drug-abuse education, educational programs only work if an entire community supports and embodies the desired message. Middle-school kids won’t decide to avoid drugs just because a cop comes to their English class and delivers a half-hour talk and a few coloring books. They will decide to avoid drugs if they come from a community that does not indulge in drug abuse.

Mr. Haynes ends with a stirring appeal:

At a time of growing religious extremism, deep racial divides, and widespread ignorance about “the other,” every school has a civic and moral obligation to counter messages of hate by educating for a more just, tolerant and free society.

Fair enough. But school can’t do it alone. If we want a more just, tolerant and free society, we have to work for a more just, tolerant, and free society. We can’t assume we’ve done our jobs if we’ve shown students a couple of hours of cheerful videos.

Teaching Kids about Rape

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.

Manhattan, Kansas

Manhattan, Kansas

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.

Too titillating?

Too titillating?

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.

The Talk: Sex Ed at Us & Them

For a society so drenched in sexual imagery and innuendo, we have a surprisingly difficult time talking about sex.  As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, our American sex paradox leads to one of the most difficult and stubborn issues of our educational culture wars.  This week, Trey Kay explores the question of sex ed at Us & Them.  Is it too much to ask of schools to fix a wider culture that can barely talk about sex?

Can We Talk...?

Can We Talk…?

Kay describes a talk at his alma mater by conservative sex education activist Pam Stenzel.  Watch out, Stenzel yelled at the assembled teens.  If you get an STD, you could be ruined for life.

Kay also chats with a mother who wants kids to learn about sex in a rational, non-judgmental way.  Kids will be having sex, she thought.  It was criminal to leave students floundering without basic information about it.

Other conservatives such as Texas’s Don McLeroy weigh in, too.  If we really want to heal our sex-ed problem, McLeroy argues, we need to do more than teach a class or two about it.  We need to reform our whole society top to bottom.

Historian Jonathan Zimmerman might not agree with McLeroy on much, but he agrees that schools do not take the lead in sex education.  Zimmerman talks with Kay about his new book, Too Hot to Handle.  In that work, Zimmerman examines the history of sex ed and concludes that it has been most conspicuous by its absence in schools.  As Zimmerman explained in a recent talk here on the scenic campus of Binghamton University, in the United States the problem of sexually transmitted diseases was treated first and foremost as a problem for the schools to fix.  In Paris, they changed the laws.  In the US, they changed the curriculum.

The assumption in America has always been that schools can fix any problem.  But, as person after person told Kay about their own real-life sex ed, almost nobody learned anything of importance about sex from classes at school.  Perhaps the real culture-war battle over sex ed needs to learn from these interviews and move out of school onto the streets and TV rooms where the real education seems to take place.

As usual, Trey Kay does a great job of including people with very different perspectives.  Want to know what smart people on both sides of our culture-war divide think about sex ed?  Check out the whole podcast.

Are We Too Polite to Tell Our Children the Truth?

It’s not a secret. The roots of Memorial Day lie twisted with America’s toughest problems of race and region. But my hunch is that very few Memorial Day speeches mentioned such things. In addition to the vexing problems of knowledge and politics that cause our continuing educational culture wars, I think we need to add one surprisingly boring cause.

Historian David Blight has argued convincingly that the first Memorial Day (Decoration Day back then) was part of a furious effort by African American Southerners to defend the memory of Union soldiers buried in the South. On May 1, 1865, the first Memorial Day celebration took place on Washington Race Course in Charleston, South Carolina.

That first Memorial Day did not bring Americans together. It celebrated the victory of the Union. It celebrated the end of slavery. It used a display of African American military force to make the point to white Southerners that the old days were gone forever.

A dozen years later, of course, many of those white former Confederates had regained political power in the South. African American freedoms had been wrested away by vengeful white elites North and South. By the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Professor Blight tells us in Race & Reunion, North and South had come together to celebrate the heroics of white soldiers on both sides. Memorial Day had come to be a celebration of white unity, at the cost of African American rights.

What would YOU tell them?

What would YOU tell them?

Why don’t we tell any of that to our children? I think there are two obvious culprits and one surprisingly banal one.

Around these parts, local historians like to remind us that the official first Memorial Day took place in Waterloo, New York. In 1966, then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson decreed that Waterloo was the birthplace of the tradition. That’s a comforting story everyone can get behind. And it points out the many reasons why we don’t tell ourselves the story of the Charleston Race Track.

First, lots of us just don’t know. We might not have read Professor Blight’s book. In all fairness, we might assume that the history we get in our newspapers and from our parents is the truth.

Second, there has been significant political activism to make sure we don’t know. As Professor Blight detailed, organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy worked hard to obscure the race-conscious history of Memorial Day. In textbooks and historical markers, in schools and in Memorial-Day speeches, activists such as Mildred Rutherford insisted that the memory of the Confederacy must be honored.

What not to know and how not to know it...

What not to know and how not to know it…

But above and beyond ignorance and activism, there is a far more basic reason why we don’t talk much about the still-festering racial issues at the real root of Memorial Day. For those of us interested in educational culture wars, we can see the same operation at work in questions about evolution and sex education in public schools as well.

As I argue in my new book about conservative school activism in the twentieth century, conservatives have often had a very easy time vetoing ideas or methods in public-school classrooms or textbooks. Why? Because they didn’t have to disprove the ideas, they only had to insist that such ideas were controversial.

Public schools are surprisingly similar to polite dinner parties. Not because everyone’s manners are at their best, but because any topic that is perceived as controversial is taboo. Teachers will avoid it; administrators will recoil from it.

We’ve seen this over and over throughout the twentieth century, in subject after subject.

Here in scenic Binghamton, New York, for example, in 1940, school Superintendent Daniel Kelly yanked a set of history textbooks from the district’s classrooms. Why? Not because he disliked them. He told a reporter, “Personally, it’s the kind of book I want my children to have. To say it is subversive is absurd.” However, he was willing to get rid of them in order to “stop the controversy” about them.

A few years later, in 1942, an enterprising group of academics tried to determine why so few teachers taught evolution. They mailed a survey to a representative group of teachers nationwide. Overall, they found that fewer than half of America’s biology teachers taught anything close to recognizable evolutionary science. Why not? In the words of one of their respondents, “Controversial subjects are dynamite to teachers.”

When it comes to Memorial Day, this polite impulse to avoid controversy must be part of our loud silence about the roots of the holiday. Who wants to be the boor at the cookout who turns a sentimental get-together into a racial confrontation? Who is willing to tell the gathered Boy Scouts and VFW members that their parade is a charade, since it has its roots in the reinstitution of American racial slavery? Who is willing to tell kids in class that their long weekend is really a reminder of America’s long and continuing race war?

Such things are simply not done.

In addition to the obvious culture-war culprits of knowledge and politics, we need to remember this obvious fact: Teaching the truth is rude.