November 01, 2002 6 min read
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HARMFUL TO MINORS: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex, by Judith Levine (University of Minnesota, 296 pages, $25.95).

Throughout the past decade, a battle has raged in schools between proponents of comprehensive and abstinence-only sex education. The latter contingent wants educators to teach students, through popular programs such as “Sex Respect,” to simply say no. The other camp, meanwhile, wants kids to learn about safe sex in addition to the abstinence option.

In her smartly contrarian and controversial book—several big publishers rejected it—New York journalist Levine rues the fact that the abstinence-only forces have, for the time being, won the day. States that accept any of the millions of federal dollars available for sex education, she points out, must instruct young people that nonmarital sex “is likely to have harmful psychological and social effects.” This emphasis on chastity is part of what Levine sees as a national sex panic, the unfortunate assumption being that teen sex leads kids to ruin.

At the center of Levine’s argument is her belief that premarital and adolescent sexual activity is not necessarily harmful to youngsters. After all, she points out, some 90 percent of Americans, and 50 percent of teenagers, have sex before marriage, and most go on to lead fairly well-adjusted lives.

What harms young people, Levine believes, is not sex—she asserts that “teenagers can have sexual pleasure and be safe, too"—but the way it has been stigmatized by a strange alliance of religious conservatives and misled feminists. The conservatives believe that adolescent sexuality is morally corrupting and inevitably leads to disease, while the feminists insist that teenage sex is really about young girls being victimized by unsavory boys and men. What is similar about their views is that both deny or fail to address the centrality of human sexual desire, especially when it comes to teenage girls. Reading some of the popular feminist-oriented literature on adolescent girls, such as Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia, one gets the impression that teens only have sex because they’re sad, disturbed, or hooked on drugs—never because they actually desire it.

Parents and educators, of course, want to protect children from the very real dangers of sex: disease and unwanted pregnancy. But Levine contends that scare tactics are both misguided and bound to fail. Young people, she argues, live in a sex-saturated culture and perceive abstinence-only messages as hypocritical. What’s more, she writes, the “just say no” approach does absolutely nothing to safely guide the many teenagers who decide to have sex.

Some readers will undoubtedly take issue with Levine’s beliefs and conclusions, especially since rates of teen pregnancy have dropped in recent years. (For this, Levine credits increased acceptance and availability of condoms, not abstinence-only sex ed programs.) Many will view the book as little more than a sustained plea for the acceptance of teen sex and comprehensive sex education.

But to her credit, Levine also criticizes organizations firmly in the comprehensive camp, such as the prominent Sex Information and Education Council of the United States. While the chastity forces suggest that sex invariably leads to tragedy, the other side, she argues, too often pretends “that teens’ sexuality can be rational, protected, and heartbreak- free.” Both positions, she suggests, are inherently dishonest.

In the end, what makes Levine’s book so alluring is not only that it challenges current notions about teen sexuality, but also that it questions the extent to which parents and educators can control young people at all. Too many baby boomer parents, she writes, believe that they should “be involved in all aspects of their children’s lives, from soccer to sex,” and that this involvement will ensure healthy and productive futures for their youngsters. But after a certain point, parents need to let up and let go. The best thing adults can offer kids is not hollow words and slogans, but a good example.

FREE SCHOOLS, FREE PEOPLE: Education and Democracy After the 1960s, by Ron Miller (State University of New York Press, 220 pages, $22.95).

My impression of the free schools of the early 1970s was formed one day when I visited a friend who had transferred to one. As I recall, several students spent much of the afternoon smoking marijuana with a teacher, an Allen Ginsberg look-alike who occasionally slipped into what appeared to be a meditative trance but was more likely just a drug-induced stupor.

Admittedly, this is a stereotypical snapshot that probably says little about what went on at most free schools. But it’s the kind of impression, Miller suggests in this interesting history of counterculture schooling, that caused the free school movement to flame out after peaking in the mid-'70s with about 1,000 schools nationwide. The educators who operated these schools believed above all else that children are inherently curious and that, when freed from competition and threats, they’d pursue knowledge on their own.

The problem, Miller argues, is that this belief in kids’ natural curiosity became tangled up in an exaggeratedly romantic idea of the child as a saint, a pure seeker of truth. When the desires and pursuits of youngsters inevitably turned out to be less than innocent, the adults simply didn’t know how to respond.

Despite the collapse of the free school movement, Miller, president of the Vermont-based Foundation for Educational Renewal, sees much in it that was positive. He argues that many of the so-called innovations now popular among charter and other alternative schools—their emphasis on small size, nonhierarchical administrative structures, and close-knit educational communities, to name a few—actually had their origins decades ago in free schools. Indeed, the free school legacy, Miller concludes, made the very notion of alternative schooling “legitimate and commonplace in a way that was inconceivable before the 1960s.”

REVOLUTION AT THE MARGINS: The Impact of Competition on Urban School Systems by Frederick M. Hess (Brookings Institution Press, 268 pages, $18.95)

School voucher advocates have long maintained that heightened educational competition within communities would force public schools to make dramatic changes. But in this revealing and timely book, Hess, a professor of government and education at the University of Virginia, argues that the changes induced by vouchers thus far have been much smaller and more gradual than proponents had hoped.

In the three voucher cities he studied—Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Edgewood, Texas, a community just outside San Antonio—Hess found that school districts were more likely to respond to the competition with public relations initiatives than with true “performance oriented” improvements. District officials, he writes, would boldly announce innovative new programs that never actually reached the schools.

This is not to say that the public schools made no changes at all. In Milwaukee, for example, the teachers’ union eventually eased some of its rigid policies, allowing the district to be more responsive and flexible. And Edgewood adopted an open enrollment program that lets parents send their children to any school districtwide. But Hess insightfully concludes that vouchers have proved to be less a “market bulldozer” than a “pickax,” something public school officials can use “to chip away at regulations and bureaucracy.”

—David Ruenzel


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