My wife and I have four children in Eugene schools. I have been a serious student of philosophy for the past 26 years. I have a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Oregon, and I currently teach philosophy and religion in several different contexts. I also happen to be a convinced and committed Christian of no particular tradition or denomination. One project of special interest to me over the years has been to develop a philosophy of human sexuality. Accordingly, I have watched with great interest the HIV/AIDS curriculum taught to my children and listened to the concerns of other parents with respect to how it has been implemented.
I am here tonight to comment on the “Important Note Regarding HIV/AIDS Education” that I received in a packet from the school district. I have reflected at length on its contents, and frankly I am very encouraged by what I read there. The district administration’s stated policies show a concerted effort to be fair-minded, to be objective, and to be respectful of diverse views while attempting to be educationally responsible. Frankly, there are times when my wife and I have wondered whether educators have ceased to see themselves as those whose job is to hone the reasoning skills of their students so that they might learn to believe for themselves and have instead taken on the role of social engineers, seeking to save our society by shaping and manipulating the beliefs of their students. To my great relief, the “Controversial Issues” policy is that of an educator, not a manipulative social engineer.
So, the difficulty I have is not with district policy per se, but with the implementation of that policy as my wife and I have seen it at work in the classrooms of our children. Two problems need to be addressed.
THE FIRST PROBLEM. Although the plan of instruction on HIV/AIDS includes “an emphasis on sexual abstinence for school-age youth and monogamous relationships for adults as the safest and most responsible sexual behaviors,” the implementation of that emphasis is woefully inadequate. In the HIV/AIDS instruction of which I am aware, the attempts to emphasize abstinence have been marked by considerable naivete with respect to the cultural and psychological forces at work in the lives of today’s students. It is simply a fact that the predominant attitude among today’s students is that abstinence is a strange and antiquated value. Today’s students simply assume that abstinence is strictly an irrelevant religious practice which has no meaning outside the context of religion; and furthermore, they assume that religion has, at best, only marginal significance to their own lives. Accordingly, any suggestion that a student may want to practice abstinence immediately translates into a suggestion that he adopt an old-fashioned and antiquated value which would make him ridiculous in the eyes of his peers. It is indeed a very rare teen or pre-teen who will have the foresight and strength of resolve to willingly endure shame and ridicule in the present for the sake of life and physical well-being in the (to him) distant future. Experience clearly shows that young people often do not make decisions on the same bases that adults do. Paying the price of a little shame for the avoidance of AIDS might seem utterly reasonable to us as adults, but can we maintain with confidence that it seems just as reasonable to our children? I think not.
If abstinence is to be a viable option for our children, then the stigma automatically attached to it in the prevailing youth culture must be challenged. And, if the stigma can be removed at all, the only hope for doing so is to offer some alternative ways of thinking about human sexuality that offer compelling and attractive rationales for being abstinent. In other words, sexual abstinence must be given a viable philosophical foundation that renders it intellectually respectable and personally interesting quite apart from whether or not there are health risks. In the absence of such a philosophical foundation, promiscuity will always win the imaginations of our children by default; and all the preaching about health risks which we manage to thunder at them will have minimal effect.
THE SECOND PROBLEM. All too often, in my wife’s and my experience, teachers have been ill-prepared or unwilling to curtail the mockery and ridicule of our children by their fellow students when our children have voiced approval of standards of sexual behavior which ran counter to those of the prevailing youth culture. I would not expect the teachers to be able to prevent such ridicule from occurring; nor would I want it prevented. But I would expect an educator to be able to turn such an occasion into an educational opportunity. If I were the teacher, I would hope that I would—in a kind, respectful, and non-threatening way—use that opportunity to invite the students to examine why they believe what they believe; and to ask themselves on what basis they hold their beliefs about sexuality to be so clearly superior to that of the student they are ridiculing. Is not the examination of one’s own values and beliefs at the heart of education? I am convinced that most of our children have no philosophical foundation for the beliefs they have about their sexuality. They have simply absorbed their beliefs uncritically through the entertainment media and other belief-generators in modern culture.
I have no problem sending my children into an educational setting where 95% of the students have a radically different view of reality than I do. But I would expect that one of the goals of the educational enterprise is to encourage all students to examine and reflect on their views of reality, on their values, and on their beliefs and to ground those beliefs in a sober, rational, and realistic appraisal of life experience. If, having done so, 95% of the students remain steadfastly convinced of a view of reality contrary to my own, then I am still comfortable having my children in that environment. But I get very uncomfortable subjecting my children to an environment where 95% of the students think my children’s values and beliefs are weird and stupid and where that 95% have never even thought about the basis for their own beliefs, have no intention of thinking about the basis of their own beliefs, and have never been encouraged to think about the basis for their own beliefs. Such an environment cannot help but be dogmatic and intolerant. One can afford to be dogmatic and intolerant when he has never had to think about why he believes as he does. There is nothing like a little philosophical reflection to promote humility and empathy toward the beliefs of others.
My point is this: The teachers in our schools cannot be held responsible for the dogmatism and intolerance that students bring into the classroom, but they can be held responsible for not doing the job of an educator, for not requiring dogma and intolerance to take a look at itself. In our experience, teachers have not done this, or they have done this very selectively. They can identify and confront the dogmas that fashion dictates one should confront; but they are either unable to see or unmotivated to challenge the other dogmas that have not been socially selected out for criticism. Whether wittingly or not, their classes have become one more channel whereby the youth culture reinforces its own values, rather than agents of true education, calling our children to serious self-appraisal.
I would encourage the school board to re-evaluate the approach being taken with respect to the teaching of abstinence in the HIV/AIDS curriculum in the light of my comments above. There needs to be a curriculum that exposes students to various philosophical frameworks within which sexual abstinence is inherently meaningful in its own right apart from any issues of health. The objection some will raise is that one cannot teach a theoretical framework promoting abstinence without teaching religion.
My first response to such an objection is: so what? At the appropriate level, students are already being exposed to the various views of reality of different religions. The district already deems this educationally appropriate. It is no less appropriate if one simply focuses on the particular reasoning whereby different religions advocate abstinence. Where is the harm in that? Isn’t that part of becoming educated?
My second response is this: Popular though it may be to object that one cannot teach abstinence without teaching religion, the objection is not particularly informed nor intelligent. I could easily lay out a philosophical framework that promoted abstinence without any reference to G-O-D and without any reliance on the precepts of any particular religion.
My suggestion here is particularly important given my second observation above—namely, the lack so many teachers have in either the ability or desire to engage their students in philosophical dialectic. If the teacher cannot or will not do it, it seems to me critical that, as the next best alternative, the curriculum do it. We need a curriculum that delves into the philosophical issues that ought to be raised about human sexuality and sexual ethics in a thorough, intelligent, and responsible way. It is unconscionable that we would broach the subject of sexual behavior without examining the philosophical assumptions about sexuality itself. In the absence of such a curriculum, any emphasis on abstinence in the current HIV/AIDS instruction that treats it merely as a preventative for sexually-transmitted diseases will be utterly ineffective; not to mention the fact that it will be educationally deficient.