Social Education

In the pages of Time and Newsweek, as well as in their own leaflets and propaganda, both those for contraceptive-focused sex education and those for abstinence-focused sex education throw around statistics and studies about the efficacy of their respective programs. Supposedly, adults, who are either relieved to hear affirmation of their own prejudices or who are learning for the first time of some amazing revelation (“teen pregnancies are down…”), cannot imagine what’s really going on in the hearts and minds of children and adolescents today.

This is the same mistake Nancy Reagan made with the anti-drug campaign of the 80s—backing programs that educate young people about social issues and social responsibility only in the most superficially beneficial ways, and then manipulating statistics to act as if said programs are experiments that either worked or didn’t work.

The truth is there is no one effective way to educate kids about sex and drugs. And, more importantly, there is no one group of “kids.” Parents, politicians and educators need to start thinking in terms of multiple and dynamic (but, at least initially simple) profiles of teen situations, worldviews, and experiences, if any sort of “effective” program is ever to develop.

Another problem with the approach-of-precedent is the focus on concrete results: the primary purpose of sex ed. should not be to lower the number of unwanted pregnancies; the primary purpose of drug education should not be to lower the instances of illegal drug use. Those may indeed happen with an effective program in place, but the most effective program meets teens where they are and gives them honest information about what choices they have. Statistics should be available, but the focus should be on the teenagers themselves. We need more dialogue and less lecturing.

For instance, when I was growing up in the late 80s/ early 90s, drug education essentially said all drugs are dangerous and that even experimentation with supposedly safer drugs such as marijuana would usually lead to the use of “harder” drugs, such as cocaine or acid. One friend of mine, a typical recipient of such information, proclaimed in his powerful 7th grade voice that it would be stupid for anyone to do drugs. He would never do that. 5 years later, he showed up to school every day with glazed eyes.

Instead of wondering if programs are “effective,” adults should be wondering why they are (or aren’t). What happened to that friend of mine? I can guess. But, really, educators and politicians should ask the students. I would imagine, speculatively, it would be something like this: thinking, initially that any experimentation with “safe” drugs would lead to the use of harder drugs, my friend probably ended up experimenting and then realized he wasn’t about to die and that he didn’t have to do harder drugs. He also probably realized that marijuana is only psychologically and not chemically addictive. Suddenly, then, all the adults’ “education” about drugs probably seemed to him to be lies.

Want to create effective sex and drug programs? Do this:

1. Ask students who are older (12th graders, college students) what was effective or ineffective/ useful or useless about the education they received.
2. Stop treating kids as products coming out of the factory of sex and drug education. They’re people, too
3. Abandon unilateral, fear-based evaluated-by-numbers approaches to sex and drug (or, really, any kind of) education.

Usually Evangelical Christianity is the backward one in terms of social reform, but, in some ways, at least as far as evangelism is concerned, Evangelical Christians are moving away from unilateral, fear-based, evaluated-by-numbers approaches. In the 1960s, Urbana, the monstrously large Christian missions conference in Chicago, emphasized in its approach to missions converting as many people as possible. Now, Urbana has Christian speakers of various backgrounds and approaches talking about holistic ministry, witness through service… At Urbana, you’ll rarely hear any talk of preaching “hellfire and brimstone” in the Jonathan Edwards tradition.

As someone who has been in the public education system of several different schools, I can say from my own experiences that the state, the administration, the parents and the media are responsible for the suffocation of proper and honest education, because they don’t treat teachers as human, and they don’t let teachers treat their students as human. Just because we don’t want our sons and daughters cussing up a storm and being perpetual potheads doesn’t mean we should be vigilant watchdogs that hypocritically police every four-letter word or every mention of an adult having once taken a toke. I myself did not even experiment with illegal drugs, never had one illegal drink, and didn’t have my first kiss until graduate school. Nevertheless, we should create a system in which all teachers and adults feel comfortable revealing their past mistakes and experiences.

How powerful would Malcolm X’s biography be if he had pretended he had never been a gambler, pimp, drug dealer and thief? Young people need adults most as role models for honest dialogue, not as givers of rehashed, preachy lectures.