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.

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