Friday, December 2, 2011

Teaching sexual stupidity (Part I)

We all know that having a lot of money doesn’t mean you can’t in some way be a ninny. (Cue photo of Paris Hilton.) Nor is a post-graduate education a bar to silliness; while I know and admire plenty of people with magisterial and doctoral degrees, some others peddle and gulp theories or policies worthy of Dr. Peter Kreeft’s pungent phrase, “so stupid only a Ph.D. could believe it!”

If you want to go to the land of rich, well-educated idiots, you have to go either west to California, especially the San Francisco Bay area, or east to anywhere within 150 miles of Manhattan. Philadelphia’s Main Line — full of some of the oldest money and bluest blood in the country, and source of many of our nation’s greatest unsung heroes — now seems to be descending into the kind of senescence produced by inbreeding even an uncrowned, unofficial nobility.

Case in point: Friends’ Central School. A private school in Wynnewood run by the Society of Friends (“Quakers”), tuition starts at $13,200/year for nursery and tops out at $27,400/year for the secondary grades. Needless to say, it’s the kind of school ambitious yuppie parents want their kids to go to and the Philadelphia elite stuff full every year. And one of the electives a senior student can select from the curriculum is a year-long course called “Sexuality and Society”.

This course, taught by English teacher Al Vernacchio, who developed the course and sold it to the school’s leadership, is the subject of a rather fulsome, admiring 8-page article in the New York Times Magazine written by Laurie Abraham [H/T to Mark Shea]. Despite Abraham’s effusive praise, the article unconsciously conveys exactly what can go wrong with sex education in schools.


Before going further, I should in fairness explain my own background and make some caveats. The fact is, formal sex education has at least one strong selling point that should not be ignored or minimized. If anything, its weak point, “What is being taught?” is very dependent on the answer to another question, “Who is teaching it?”

I was ten years old when I read my first book about sex. It wasn’t one of those paperbacks that you could only find at porn emporia at the time (this was 1974); rather, it was a hardback book written textbook-fashion, with graphic illustrations of body parts and organ placements, in-depth discussion of subjects such as erogenous zones and intimacy issues, and very technical analyses of arousal, conception and pregnancy.

Given my already-extensive vocabulary, and the way I have always read and absorbed material — not eidetic memory but pretty thorough — it wasn’t long before I was the best-educated kid in my class about sex, which of course made me the envy of my peers. It may have also been the start of my problems with porn addiction, though I don’t want to put too much emphasis or blame on it. (“Yeah, I read Playboy for the articles.” Right.)

It’s dangerous to extrapolate from my experience alone. Before I entered the private school I was attending at the time, I tested out at an above-average IQ — not MENSA-level, but advanced for my age — and was already reading at a high-school freshman level. I say this not to brag but to point out that, in statistical terms, I was not a normal kid. I was able to connect the dots between sex and pregnancy with that book’s guidance; however, that’s no proof that Joe Schmuckatelli, Jr. is also able to make the connection at ten years old.

If anything, my experience does illustrate one of sex-ed’s selling points: If kids don’t learn about sex from some true Authority, they’ll learn about it elsewhere, from fake authorities such as dubious websites, Internet porn, ill-educated peers or ill-intentioned adults. Ignorance is not bliss. On so much people on both sides of the issue can agree.

But there’s no teaching about sex and sexuality without at least indirectly teaching some form of sexual values; indeed, the only real point of sex education is to teach children to make good sexual decisions. Only what constitutes good sexual judgment? And, moreover, when is an appropriate time to begin teaching these values?

Abraham, in the course of her article, takes several not-so-covert potshots at abstinence education. Now, abstinence education works in Africa, where there’s not full saturation of cultures by a media intent on celebrating and promoting unrestrained sex; in the US … meh, not so much. Nevertheless, as I tire of repeating, “they’re gonna do it anyway” is a poor excuse for shooting down abstinence education in favor of a value-neutral approach, far less for teaching how to fornicate (safely or no).

Vernacchio, described in the article as a “practicing Catholic”, is dedicated to teaching “safe sex” rather than abstinence, as well as to incorporating “LGBT-friendly” language and attitudes (Vernacchio is in a monogamous same-sex partnership). To date, none of the parents of his students have expressed any concern with the content of the course, which in many courts of opinion would render it “none of our business”. If they don’t have a problem with it, why should we?

Philadelphia Main Line parents can to some degree not only afford their children’s poor sexual judgment but to teach them poor sexual judgment in a private school. Nevertheless, Vernacchio is teaching poor sexual judgment, simply because he takes for granted that “they’re gonna do it anyway”. Props to him for frank discussion and graphic illustrations, but indirectly teaching that sex outside of the context of a committed marriage open to children is okay amounts to giving adult approval of teenage sexual license.

Now consider that this is precisely the approach so many educators — many with “Ph.D.” and “Ed.D.” after their names — want for public schools. That’s right, folks — your tax dollars spent to teach kids how to not avoid the mistake of premarital sex, to rely on condoms and contraceptives as parachutes.

Thus endeth the first part of the rant.