• U.S.

Teaching: The Fourth R

5 minute read

What to teach about sex—or even whether—is an intensifying dilemma of U.S. education. The big New York City school system ignores the subject; the big Los Angeles system takes pride in treating it. Washington, D.C., offers candid sex education, at least partly to fight down the high rate (1,100 cases a year) of unwed pregnancy among high school girls; just across the Potomac in Virginia, state law prohibits any public school sex instruction. Even among communities that think sex is a fit classroom subject, there is no unanimity of approach; some teach blunt physiology, with pictures; some tiptoe around the topic; some scare kids and even lie to them; a few regard sex as primarily a moral issue.

Cells & Syphilis. Community and family pressures are gradually forcing the schools to accept reproduction as a fourth R. Health officials point out that the need to fight ignorance is as great as ever; 500,000 teen-agers a year contract venereal diseases. Since few parents are at ease discussing the subject with their sons and daughters, schools face little opposition when they try to add sexual education to their curricu lum. And the students themselves insist that they want the instruction. “I doubt that I will use algebra when I grow up, but I’ll probably be married,” says a Berkeley, Calif., high school senior.

The why of sex education is clear enough, but the how is not. Even after parents give the go-ahead, many schools submerge the realities of sex in the cell-and-amoeba terms of biology classes, or settle for the shock effect of horror movies about syphilis. Los Angeles claims to have extensive sex instruction wrapped into its junior high and eleventh-grade health education courses; nonetheless, a Hamilton High junior complains that “we never get down to the point but go all around it.” The value of the course really depends upon the teacher, says Bonnie Hersh, a Venice High junior. “If he gets embarrassed, well, then forget it—you may as well study plants or something.”

But there are also school systems that try to integrate sex instruction naturally into the curriculum and put it into psychological perspective. Most of these programs encourage teachers to discuss the moral issues involved, but let them decide for themselves what to say. In Detroit, Teacher Robert Brown takes the pragmatic approach. He does not teach that fornication is wrong, but he points out to his high school students the probability of pregnancy, the dangers in abortion. He warns that “petting is the forerunner of the sexual act—if you stop petting on one date, that is where you start in on the next.”

The pioneering Evanston, Ill., programs, nine years in operation, begin sex education in kindergarten, where the tots are encouraged to talk about any new babies in their family. In early grades they learn about the growth processes in nature, see pictures of animals being nursed. Human reproduction is taught in the fifth grade partly by taking the kids to the nearby Hinsdale Health Museum to view pictures and models of human organs and the prenatal growth of a baby. At that age level, explains Superintendent Oscar M. Chute, “they’re able to learn, but are still not emotionally and physically involved and less self-conscious.”

Boys view a film explaining changes at puberty, which includes a stern warning about masturbation—”a careless habit that leads to unhappy thinking.” Girls see a film about menstruation. By seventh grade, the kids are asking, “How is the number of children regulated by parents?” The answers sometimes prudishly shade the truth; asked about contraceptives, one teacher replies: “I say they are sold to married people, and I stress their unreliability.”

Kissing & Petting. One of the frankest sex programs is that of the Washington, D.C., schools, where the course outline encourages teachers to stimulate classroom discussions on “the natural emotional responses related to kissing and petting.” Eighth-Grade Teacher Bernard Dory deftly handles such queries as “Is it O.K. to have intercourse while the girl is having her period?” (His answer: intercourse during menstruation is possible, but many consider it unclean.) The need for plain talk is shown by the appalling misinformation some Washington youngsters bring to the course. At least once a year Teacher Effie Jones is asked by one of her eighth-grade girls: “Mrs. Jones, if I don’t have sexual relations before I’m 16, will I go crazy?”

For many schools, sex is still a harder topic to handle than space orbits. Nonetheless, educators believe that learning about sex will soon become as commonplace in the curriculum as learning how to read or drive a car. For while the moral standards must and will always be imparted (or neglected), implicitly or explicitly, by the parents, the clinical facts are often best taught by a third person.

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