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.

Sex Sells, but Who’s Buying?

The kids are alright. And if they’re not, all of our culture-war fuss ‘n’ stuff over sex in schools is not making too much of a difference. Thanks to the inestimable Jonathan Zimmerman, Binghamton University last night enjoyed a mind-blowing discussion of sex education worldwide. Among the many takeaway lessons, Professor Zimmerman argued that culture-war fulminations about sex ed generally have only a very tenuous relationship to what children actually learn about sex.

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, sex education has long been a lightning rod for controversy in the USA. Liberal activists insist that this is literally a life-and-death matter, with the rise of HIV and unplanned pregnancies. For their part, conservatives have blasted liberal efforts as something akin to child pornography. Or even as a scheme by sex predators to loosen up the victims.

In his talk last night on the scenic campus of Binghamton University, Prof. Zimmerman shared some of his work from his new book, Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education. Over the course of the twentieth century, sex education has spread around the world, led in many ways by pioneers in the United States. What people have wanted out of sex ed, and the shape sex ed has taken, have continually been subject to withering debate.

Who's for it?

Who’s for it?

Sex ed—and fights over sex ed—have a long history, back to about 1914. But things changed radically with the introduction of HIV. Since that time, everyone involved has agreed that sex ed is a drastic necessity. But there have been bitter disagreements about what sex ed should look like.

Two distinct types of missionary outreach have competed for global influence. On one hand, we have what might be called the “health and autonomy” position. Advocates of this type of sex ed—which, for the record, is generally something your humble editor supports—want children to have maximum information about sex. This might be touchy, but children need to learn how sex works. Perhaps more important, children need to learn to assert control over their own sexuality. Coerced and risky sex are the twin scourges against which effective sex education should be designed to fight.

On the other side, conservatives have preached a moral approach, something we might call the “just say no” school. Around the world, activists have insisted that the best offense in the case of sex is a good defense. If traditional courtship patterns can be preserved, if sex can be something done only within the bounds of a heterosexual marriage, then the blights of disease and exploitation can be eliminated.

From New York to Auckland, Dhaka to Copenhagen, these sorts of culture wars over sex education have raged for a generation. During that time, leaders and organizations have come and gone. Buzzwords and strategies have mutated and metastasized.

One thing that has not changed, according to the good professor, was that the sex education curricula in public schools has not had much direct correlation to the ways young people learn about sex.

First of all, activists tend to debate official curricula, not actual learning. In other words, as with other educational culture-war issues such as evolution and school prayer, adults tend to fight over the official standards for what should be taught in public-school classrooms. In practice, there is a vast and unmeasured distance between official learning standards and real classroom learning.

Also, even if we take official sex-ed curricula as our guide to what kids are learning, in the USA we don’t find much. At most, Professor Zimmerman explained, students in US public schools get about six hours per year of sex education.

It might be no surprise, then, that students don’t learn much about sex in school. Since the 1920s, Professor Zimmerman told us, students have put school near the bottom of their lists of places they learn about sex. Consistently, students respond that they glean about five percent of their knowledge about sex from their classes in school. Five percent! That means that almost all of their sex education takes place outside the classroom walls.

Yet time and again, both sides in our tumultuous sex-ed culture wars have issued dire warnings about the importance of public-school sex-education programs. Do such programs matter? Certainly. But too often, culture-war activists make cataclysmic claims about the positive or negative effects of school programs. And too often, these claims are about building political careers and establishing public profiles, rather than helping kids learn.

Hot & Bothered in Binghamton, New York

Clear your calendars! Next Friday Jonathan Zimmerman will be coming to scenic Binghamton to give a talk about his new book.

Zimmerman is a prolific historian and public intellectual. You may have read his blockbuster books such as Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools. Now you can get your hands on his latest, Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education. You may also have seen him in the pages of the New York Times or on The Daily Show.

Who's for it?

Who’s for it?

Next Friday, May 1st, at 4:15 in the Admissions Center, Binghamton University will host Professor Zimmerman for our 23rd annual Couper Lecture. In the past, this lecture series has brought to our campus such luminaries as Bill Reese, Michael Apple, Maris Vinovskis, and many more.

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, sex ed is one of the touchiest topics in America’s continuing culture wars. What should schools tell students about sex? How much is too much?

In his new book, Professor Zimmerman explodes the boundaries of these debates. The culture war over sex ed, Zimmerman argues, is not merely between conservatives and liberals in the USA. Rather, worries about the right relationship between sex and children spread from the US to cover the globe during the twentieth century.

So slip on your smarty-pants and come on over to our scenic campus. All are welcome, but registration is requested.

Kansex Teachers: No More Excuses

Here’s the question: If a teacher shows students lewd and lascivious material, can she escape punishment because that material is part of an approved curriculum? Not if a new bill in Kansas is approved. The case raises some difficult questions: Are some forms of knowledge harmful? If so, who gets to decide which ones? …and how?

Those aren’t the only difficult questions. The bill itself is hard to figure out at first glance. Politico reported yesterday that the bill has already passed through the Senate and is heading for the House. Senate Bill 56 amends an earlier law. If 56 passes, teachers will no longer be able to defend themselves against charges of impropriety by saying that any offensive material was part of an approved curriculum.

It’s a little confusing, so I’ll say it again: An earlier state law had specified that librarians, college professors, and K-12 teachers could be prosecuted for using any material “harmful to minors” unless that material was owned (or leased) by the school or library and used as part of an “approved course or program of instruction.”

Under the proposed law, professors and librarians could still claim that defense, but K-12 teachers could not. The bill had its origins in a poster controversy last year. The poster listed ways people might act on their sexual feelings. The sponsor of today’s bill, Senator Mary Pilcher-Cook, called it “highly offensive and harmful.”

Is this a misdemeanor?

Is this a misdemeanor?

Pilcher-Cook’s attitude raises a central culture-war question. The notion that children in school must be protected from harmful words and ideas is a vital tradition among educational conservatives.

To be clear, not only conservatives want to ban harmful ideas from schools. Progressives, too, often assume that certain kinds of knowledge are harmful. From Huckleberry Finn to the University of Oklahoma, for instance, racist language and ideas have long been targets for progressive censorship. Merely hearing racist words, some activists have argued, can damage children.

In the case of sex education, though, progressives tend to think that more information is a good thing. Students need to hear explicit sexual terms. Students need to know about specific sex acts. Learning it in a classroom setting, the classic progressive argument goes, is better than learning it on the street.

Conservatives, in contrast, often think that exposure to sexual information is damaging. In this case, as Senator Pilcher-Cook told Politico, the “damage” caused by the middle-school sex-ed poster “could not be undone.” Merely hearing these words constitutes harm to children.

As I argue in my new book, conservatives have traditionally enjoyed great political success with these anti-sex-ed arguments. In the 1970s, for example, conservative school board member Alice Moore from Kanawha County, West Virginia, rallied protesters against a new series of textbooks by reading part of a salacious passage, then refusing to go on because the material was too offensive.

Children, the argument goes, are harmed by seeing or hearing certain sexual terms. They are harmed by knowing about certain sex acts. One goal of proper education, some feel, must be to protect children from these kinds of sexual knowledge.

The language of the Kansas bill makes clear the crux of the issue. If enacted into law, teachers could be prosecuted for sharing material that is “harmful to minors,” even if that material is part of an approved curriculum. Of course, such a law would put teachers in a terrible pickle.

Supporters of the bill insist that common-sense guidelines would protect teachers. As we all know, though, common sense is anything but common. Teachers and parents who think explicit sexual information is helpful would be up against those who think the exact same information is harmful.

Beyond such concerns, though, the language of the bill reveals our divided conscience. No one thinks teachers should harm students. But is exposure to information about sexual behavior—even explicit information—harmful?

Binghamton: The Place to Be

If you care about our educational culture wars—and you know you do—there’ll be no better place to be in 2015 that Binghamton University in sunny Binghamton, New York. We’ll have two of the world’s best scholars coming to campus to talk about their work. They will share their research into some of the most confounding culture-war questions: Who decides how and what to teach about evolution? How has sex education spread worldwide?

In late March, Professor Michael Berkman will be coming. Along with his colleague Eric Plutzer, Prof. Berkman published a bombshell book a couple years ago about the teaching of evolution in public high schools. Berkman and Plutzer are political scientists at Penn State. They got funding from the National Science Foundation to survey high-school science teachers about their teaching. Their results attracted a good deal of attention.

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

In the January, 2011 issue of Science (sorry, subscription required), for example, Berkman & Plutzer described the results of their survey. They found that about 13% of teachers taught creationism in public schools as science. Another roughly 28% taught recognizable evolution. The rest, roughly 60%, are the most interesting. This large majority of teachers reported that they taught a mish-mash of watered down evolution, religious- or religion-friendly ideas about creation, or a menu of evolution and creationism.

But the book was bigger than just this survey. As political scientists, Berkman & Plutzer argued that the important question was the way these decisions were made. Who decides what gets taught? State standards don’t do it. In states with good evolutionary science standards, teachers still teach non-evolution. Textbooks don’t do it. Glittering new science books with all the evolution bells and whistles can’t teach by themselves.

For Berkman & Plutzer, the answer was simple: Teachers. Teachers function as “street-level bureaucrats,” making daily decisions about what to teach and how to teach it. In most cases, teachers fit in with their local communities. If their communities want evolution to be taught, teachers teach it. But if communities want it watered down or kicked out, teachers do that, too.

Professor Berkman will be visiting our scenic campus as part of the Evolution Studies Program. We’re not sure yet what the focus of his talk will be, but he tells us he’s got some new data he’ll be sharing. Can’t wait to see what it is.

Our second campus visit will be from Professor Jonathan Zimmerman of New York University. Over a decade ago, Prof. Zimmerman defined the historical vision of America’s educational culture wars with his book, Whose America? In that volume, Zimmerman argued that two main tensions had divided Americans’ vision of proper education. Since the 1920s, conservatives and progressives had squared off on fights over patriotism and religion. Does loving our country mean teaching students to question it? Or to support it unhesitatingly? And should schools incorporate prayer and Bible-reading? Who gets included in history textbooks, and how?

Professor Zimmerman’s new book looks at sex education as a global phenomenon. Though the United States was an early exporter of sex ed, by the end of the twentieth century the US government joined some uncomfortable allies to battle sex education. As Zimmerman has argued, sex ed has created a new and sometimes surprising worldwide network of conservative alliances. For example, at a 2002 United Nations special session on children, US delegates joined Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, and Syria in condemning a sex-ed proposal.

Who's for it?

Who’s for it?

When it comes to culture-war topics, national boundaries aren’t as important as we tend to think. It’s difficult for historians to look beyond them, though, due to language barriers and the high cost of research travel. In his new book, Prof. Zimmerman hopes to overcome those prosaic difficulties and tell the story of sex ed in its full global context.

And when he journeys north to our campus in early May, Zimmerman promises to share some of his insights from this book.

So whether you care about evolution, creationism, sex ed, history, school politics, school prayer, or any other culture-war issue, there will be nowhere more exciting than Binghamton University in 2015.

Be here or be square.

Why Did This Politician Hold Up This Sign?

The politics seem obvious.  In this picture, Representative Bob McDermott of Hawaii displays classroom notes from an eleven-year-old student.  The point?  McDermott hopes to convince voters that young children should not be learning these things in school.  To us at ILYBYGTH, the campaign illuminates two leading traditions among conservative educational activists.

Too much too soon?

Too much too soon?

The tactic is part of McDermott’s campaign against a new sex-ed program in Hawaii, “Pono Choices.”  Fans of the program insist that it is “medically accurate and age appropriate.”  Representative McDermott disagrees.  And in his activism, McDermott leans heavily on a couple of tried-and-true conservative traditions.

First, McDermott objects to the experimental nature of the program.  As McDermott complained,

Parents simply were not informed that their kids were being used as human guinea pigs for research. This is a monumental breach of trust between the DOE and the owners of the system, the parents.

The language of the “guinea pig” has long been a favorite of conservative educational activists.  Recently, pundit Michelle Malkin blasted the Common Core State Standards with precisely this same language.  “Our kids,” Malkin insisted, “are not anybody else’s guinea pigs.”

Just as central, McDermott is using the language of cultivated ignorance.  For just as long as conservatives have worried about their children being turned into guinea pigs, they have fought to ensure that children are kept ignorant of certain ideas.  In many cases, conservatives don’t dispute the truth of those ideas.  They simply insist that certain truths should be kept away from children of a certain age.

Obviously, one doesn’t have to be a “conservative” to agree that some images and some ideas are not appropriate for some age groups.  Films and other media are labeled by age-appropriateness.  Some video games come approved for “mature audiences” only.

But in culture-war battles over sex, the desire to keep children deliberately ignorant of certain facts becomes controversial.  In the case of sex education, some conservatives tend to fight for more ignorance for longer.  Progressives and public-health types tend to argue for more knowledge earlier.

In this case, Representative McDermott is clearly hoping that a little street theater will help his case.  How many parents, McDermott might ask, want their children’s school notebooks to look like this?

 

Kids: You’re Not Really Gay

What should conservatives tell gay kids?  One writer suggests that kids should learn that they’re not really gay.  But that writer, Michael Hannon, also wants us to tell non-gay kids that they’re not really straight.

Hannon’s original argument suggested that the construction of the notion of sexual identities in the nineteenth century doomed conservative Christians to a double danger.  First, it led some people to identify as homosexuals.  According to Hannon, such an identity enshrines sinful behavior as the core of a person’s identity.  To Hannon, anyway, it seems there is no moral way to have sex as a homosexual, since gay marriage is not for him a moral possibility and sex outside of marriage is immoral.

But heterosexuality is just as bad.  By allowing conservatives who identify as heterosexuals to rest satisfied that they had the “right” sexual identity, heterosexuality left people clueless about the abundant dangers of the entire idea of sexual identity.

In other words, if I understand him correctly, Hannon hoped religious conservatives would take their argument up one level.  Instead of suggesting that homosexuality was sinful and heterosexuality was not, Hannon wants us to recognize that the concept of a sexual identity—any sexual identity—was deeply problematic.  As he elaborated in a recent follow-up, Hannon argued that the real goal of religious people must not be Hollywood’s marriage-as-happy-ending, but a more complicated goal of spiritual friendship.

This is not the usual semi-hysterical “homosexual agenda” talk we hear from some religious pundits.  Over and over, conservative activists have warned that “sneaky” homosexuals are using public schools to infect young minds with gayness.  Hannon is making a much more subtle argument.

To be clear, Hannon does indeed think that homosexuality tends to promote sinful behavior.  As he put it,

Self-describing as a “homosexual” tends to multiply occasions of sin for those who adopt the label. . . .  Whereas the infusion of the theological virtues sets the Christian free, identifying as homosexual only further enslaves the sinner. It intensifies lust, a sad distortion of love, by amplifying the apparent significance of concupiscent desires. It fosters a despairing self-pity, harming hope, which is meant to motivate moral virtues. And it encourages a strong sense of entitlement, which often undermines the obedience of faith by demanding the overthrow of doctrines that seem to repress “who I really am.”

But this is not the only problem of sexual identities.  Too many conservatives, Hannon charges, accept heterosexuality as a healthy sexual identity.  They yearn for boy-meets-girl and scorn boy-meets-boy or girl-meets-girl, but in essence such conservatives miss the point.  Encouraging young people to understand themselves as primarily sexual beings—gay or straight—puts too much emphasis on sexual identities entirely.

What should young people hear about sexual identities?  Neither that they are inherently gay nor straight, Hannon says.  Rather, that sex is part of humanity, but never should make up the core of a person’s identity.

Critic John Corvino doesn’t buy it. According to Corvino, Hannon seems to be

asking for something much more difficult for us moderns to imagine: a world without sexual orientation as we understand it. Yet it’s hard to see how to avoid the closet as a necessary first step toward this goal. Worse, one worries that aiming for this goal would at most achieve a disastrous middle ground: a world where orientation categories were still salient but where the taboo against voicing them would leave those with same-sex desires lonely and miserable.

How about you?  Do you think Hannon’s argument has legs?  Can religious conservatives get out of their culture-war pickle by moving away from a condemnation of homosexuality and instead to a broader distaste for sexual identities as a whole?