Education: Sex and Schools

AIDS and the Surgeon General add a new urgency to an old debate

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Lundgren talks about condoms ("No glove, no love" is a popular class mnemonic), and abortion is presented as a fact of life. "We explain how suction curettage happens and what happens with a saline injection," says the teacher. "We tell them to keep reading, keep thinking and keep talking about it." Lundgren starts discussions of oral and anal sex by saying, "We're not telling you this to gross you out." Only six or seven youngsters out of 850 are excused from the class each year because of parents' objections. Says the popular Lundgren, one of eight finalists for state teacher of the year in 1985: "Everybody we talk to in the community is positive about what we're doing."

By national standards, St. Paul's sex-ed program is one of the frankest and most thriving. It touches on homosexuality without either endorsing or criticizing it. "We say the gay community defines homosexuality as a trait that is born into them, and we are not putting our own construction on that because we don't have research to substantiate it," says Wanda Miller. Teachers also explain exactly how one gets or avoids AIDS. "We are clear and explicit about semen and blood being the roots of transmission and that condoms offer protection." Despite such directness, St. Paul's program operates without much criticism from parents.

The popular acceptance of these programs seems to rest on their adjustment to their individual communities, something not easily outlined in a lesson plan. Says Harvard Psychology Professor Jerome Kagan: "Human sexuality is a moral issue in every society. But while some societies have a consensus on sex, ours doesn't." The conflicting moral values touch the most seemingly innocuous issues. Everyone, for example, agrees that self-esteem and psychological factors are crucial, particularly to demoralized ghetto youngsters. But even building self-esteem divides proponents and critics of sex education. One side tends to talk of right and wrong, the other of self- enhancement and the importance of feelings. UCLA Health Educator Adrienne Davis says she teaches "that nothing is good that decreases your self-esteem, that you don't feel good about and that hurts another person," the essence of what Secretary Bennett cites when he harrumphs about "feel-good philosophy."

The struggle over sex education echoes the right-left battles over public school textbooks around the nation, notably in Tennessee, where Fundamentalist / parents successfully sued to shield their children from basic school readers they considered offensive. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has begun to use language similar to Southern Fundamentalists', charging that school clinics would establish an "official state philosophy of situation ethics and moral relativism" that contradicts the teachings of most major religions. Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, author of Sex by Prescription, thinks pressures on the public schools are bound to mount. "A covert struggle is going on to see who will control the free schools and mold the minds of other people's children," he says. "You can see a pattern with the Tennessee case -- when one group imposes its values on the schools, everyone else feels mugged." Szasz believes the current debate may foreshadow the breakup of the public school system, something that, as a libertarian, he would not mind in the least.

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