In The Press
The writer who popularized the notion that "Dan Qualye Was Right'' (in a 1993 Atlantic Monthly cover story by that name), has now taken aim at comprehensive sex education in the schools. The whole enterprise is a failure, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead argues in this month's cover story for the Atlantic.
Not only has sex education failed today's teenagers, she writes, but it has also spawned a new wave of the sexual revolution that attracts younger, more vulnerable participants.
Ms. Whitehead, who is vice president of the conservative, New York City-based Institute for American Values, asserts that teaching students the technicalities of human sexuality fails to curtail their sexual behavior.
In fact, she says, this approach often backfires: "...[I]t could be argued that teaching noncoital sex techniques as a way of reducing the risks of coitus comes close to educational malpractice."
Ms. Whitehead begins her survey of comprehensive sex education with a fairly even-handed look at the efforts of New Jersey to fulfill its sex-education mandate. (Although 15 other states have followed the early efforts of New Jersey and Maryland to require sex education for all students, she narrows her focus to this one alone.)
She carefully outlines the philosophy behind comprehensive sex education, identifies some key players, and describes the program as a political success. Overwhelmingly, she notes, polls show that New Jersey parents support this multi-age, multidisciplinary approach to sex education. Ms. Whitehead, however, does not.
Her disapproval first manifests itself as she dissects the Learning About Family Life textbook, which was published by Rutgers University Press for children in grades K-3. The book, with its emphasis on amicably resolved family crises and its lack of male characters, is, according to Ms. Whitehead, "no less didactic in its views on family life than Dick and Jane."
Putting theory aside, she sets out to analyze sex education on its own terms with "reality tests." She prefaces her analysis with a small, but pertinent, disclaimer: "For a variety of reasons the body of research on sex-education programs is not as rich and robust as we might wish."
This lack of evidence does not prevent Ms. Whitehead from condemning sex education. It also does not dampen the enthusiasm of its advocates. Her data, which feature references to several studies and surveys, often omit specific dates, numbers, names of researchers, and other significant information.
Moreover, at several points, her emotions masquerade as evidence. For example, she states that comprehensive sex education is not an educational policy, but a liberal ideology. It is, she writes, "a jumble of popular therapies and philosophies, including self-help therapies, self-esteem and assertiveness training, sexology, and certain strands of feminism ... [whose] mission is to defend and extend the freedoms of the sexual revolution."
Her alternative, which may have a familiar ring to readers of her last Atlantic Monthly article, is a return to abstinence. The only successful sex-education programs she mentions both promote abstinence.
Despite its subjectivity, Ms. Whitehead's article does give voice to some valid concerns: Younger teenagers are sexually active; many of these relationships are abusive; the percentage of births to unwed mothers continues to rise; and teenage mothers are less likely to complete high school and more likely to rely on welfare than are their peers who do not have babies. Targeted, rather than comprehensive, sex education, Ms. Whitehead suggests, may prove more socially and politically astute.
The current "training in sexual survival," she concludes, represents a retreat into "a more Darwinian sexual environment" rather than an advance for today's youngsters.
Bemoaning the failure of education reforms, the distinguished historian Gertrude Himmelfarb and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Chester E. Finn Jr. outline in this month's Commentary their own solutions to problems in the K-12 and postsecondary arenas.
"The effect of th[e] multipronged assault of affirmative action--in student admissions and faculty appointments, in the curriculum and disciplines--has been the Balkanization of the university," contends Ms. Himmelfarb, a professor emeritus at the City University of New York.
Political correctness and multiculturalism have trivialized academics, fragmenting the higher-education community into competing factions. As a result, she suggests, universities have strayed from their traditional ideals and consequently fail to graduate knowledgeable and discerning individuals.
To counter this trend, Ms. Himmelfarb advocates a return to academic basics, calling for support from "the saving remnant." She believes that this "large, if silent, minority of professors and students who would prefer a more traditional mode of teaching and scholarship" must band together, vocalize their ideas, and propel the university away from intellectual fads and toward more meaningful scholarly interactions.
Similarly, Mr. Finn urges policymakers to rise above their politics and radically change the education system. Goals 2000, he asserts, "is no great advance, ... will not solve the education problem, and thus cannot accomplish its primary purpose."
Instead, he proposes the following six reforms to reverse the trend in academic mediocrity: "transfer power; insist on standards; insure accountability; encourage 'supply-side pluralism'; promote 'demand-side choice'; and support professionalism."
"Obvious as these recipes may seem, few are cooking from them today," writes Mr. Finn, a fellow at the Hudson Institute. "The entrenched forces of the status quo contend that radical change is unnecessary, even damaging to 'public education as we know it."'
Acknowledging that this political undertaking is immense, Mr. Finn warns nonetheless that it is critical to the security of the nation.