Over the last three decades, social scientists, educational researchers, and pundits have probed for the reason why educationally the US is on the fringe of being a Third World country. In particular, why does the academic achievement of American students begin to fall off during junior high and plummet during the high school years?
The “failure theories” are many: our schools are too big; our schools are too small; our school year is too short; our school day is too long; our teachers are too dumb or too lazy or under paid; our parents don’t care; we don’t give the schools enough money. Critics endlessly opine that our students don’t have enough arts, enough sports; enough science, enough math. They don’t have enough homework; they have too much homework. What is being missed from the analyses is the teenagers’ elephant in the room, their Kim Kardashian at the Sunday school picnic: sex.
In the pre-Big Media era, young people learned about the “birds and the bees” and how to make their way sexually in the world from their parents, the church, their friends, the surrounding culture and schools. However, in the US today, parents, for a range of reasons from overextended single mothers to golf-distracted fathers, are having a limited impact on their children’s sexual education.
Our churches are still there, but fewer and fewer young people are attending. Also, most pulpits speak to the young with diminished authority. Their friends are swimming in the same sexual soup of confusion and misinformation as they. Today the “surrounding culture” is a mix of TV, the Internet, and various “i” devices. The dominant message from these media to young Americans is the modern variant of “eat drink and be merry for tomorrow you die.” Or, more like, eat, drink and, by all means, express yourself sexually early and often.
The dispensers of sexual wisdom
With two key “teachers,” parents and churches, hobbled on the sidelines, the primary influencers are the media and the schools. Our media moguls, free speech warriors all, long ago learned that the best way to attract customers’ eyes in order to sell soap, cars and beer is to show a little skin. As a result, today’s screens are a virtual torrent of naked flesh. To learn the exquisite secrets of the female body, boys no longer have to read National Geographic by flashlight under the bedcovers. Galaxies of porn sites are just clicks away.
So, for most American children, this leaves our schools as the institutions best set up to pass on the community’s sexual wisdom. After all, schools have trained “learning specialists.” And they have a captive audience during youth’s formative years. How, then, are our schools doing?
First, the surface symptoms and, then, the results. A casual stroll through the halls of many high schools or a conversation with an experienced teacher will provide myriad indicators of the sexual environment within which we are raising our children. The cafeteria, halls, and locker rooms ricochet with f-bombs and sex-laced taunts. Nuzzling at lockers and fondling in the school’s dark corners is a staple. Girls appear to be competing in a stripper’s fashion show. Boys look like they are trying out for 1930-ish gangster movies.
Meanwhile teachers and administrators drift through the halls like those see-no-evil-hear-no-evil monkeys. However, teachers and students alike are well aware of the sexual bullying, the swapping of electronic porn sites, cell phone cameras flashing in the locker room and quickly sexting around the school,
How sexually active are US students?
Short answer: Plenty active.
- In 2011, 47 percent of US high school students surveyed reported having had sexual intercourse. A third of that group said they had had sex within the last 3 months. 15 percent had had four or more different partners so far.
- 750,000 teens become pregnant each year – the vast majority (82 percent) of these pregnancies are unintended. By comparison, the United States’ teen pregnancy rate is over three times that of Germany (19 percent), almost three times which of France (26 percent).and is over four times that of the Netherlands (14 percent).
- Thirty percent of teens watch porn at least once a week.
Providing a young person with information is the way Americans have been responding to what is clearly a devastating problem of irresponsible sexual behavior. For thirty years or more, schools have been teaching something called “comprehensive sexual education,” a fact-based program that now starts its informational campaign in many states at age five and runs through 12th grade. Promoted vigorously and effectively by Planned Parenthood, the program’s mantra is “safe-sex.” The keys to “safe-sex” are birth control pills and condoms, items which research shows are largely ignored by teens.
A veteran Boston teacher pin pointed the reason for the failure of comprehensive sex education and its “safe sex” campaign. “Why all this wasted time and graphic demonstrations on how to use condoms. My 10th graders can’t even remember to bring a pencil to class and we expect that in the high heat of lust that they’ll remember how to correctly use a condom!”
It is nothing short of a masterful grasp of the obvious to say that this current situation is unhealthy for our kids’ futures and harmful to our country’s future. Also, it is difficult enough to run a school, but to try to run a school that is a sexual playground is simply doomed. Nevertheless, in the US we have local control of the schools. If a school board wants Chinese to be taught in the middle school, it happens. If they want to deemphasize football and focus on soccer, it happens. School boards are, of course, political bodies and they typically response to the will of the community. If not, board members are replaced. Still, except for some myopic civil libertarians and aging free love apostles, most adults are stunned when they discover the sexual climate of so many of our junior and senior high schools.
What can be done?
Parents and taxpayers, who pay for public education, can find their voice and again insist on sexual sanity in our schools. A few suggestions:
- No hugging, no kissing, no fondling, and no holding hands anywhere on school grounds.
- Establish and enforce a strict language code. Cursing, swearing, calling another a bitch or a “ho” is forbidden anywhere on school grounds. Period!
- Dress codes should prohibit overly tight, provocative clothes. Where there is enough parental will, school uniforms are an excellent solution.
- Review the school’s sex education curriculum to ensure that it offers an intelligent and ennobling vision of sex, one that appeals to students’ best moral selves. For example: “Sex is most meaningful and fulfilling when it’s part of something bigger—a continuing, serious relationship between two human beings. You know. Like a marriage.”
- Teach the straight facts about condoms: They allow a false sense of safety. They reduce but don’t eliminate the risk of pregnancy and STD.
- From junior high forward, sex education classes should be single sex.
- Pornography on one’s cell phone or tablet or computer means immediate dismissal.
- Provocative displays of one’s gender or sexuality, whether hetero, homo, bi, or trans, won’t be tolerated and will, also, lead to dismissal.
- Teachers’ sexual views and private lives are to be just that: private. On the other hand, all educators are expected to enforce school rules and promote abstinence.
- Finally, the school community, through dances, proms, drama and music productions and sports, should foster and promote a healthy and protected environment for young people to grow in understanding of human sexuality, but grow slowly.
While transforming the behavior of teenaged students may appear to many as an impossible task, those who have service in our military will disagree. Military boot camps are designed to modify the behavior of teenagers and our services have a long and distinguished history of transforming self-indulgent and disorganized teenagers into productive, disciplined human beings.
However, Marine drill sergeants aren’t required in schools. Rather, schools need teachers and administrators with a clear awareness of their authority and the conviction that the community is supporting them. Key, too, is the educators’ realization that these changes will improve not only life in their classrooms, but the academic performance of their students. While the idea of a kinder, gentler boot camp may offend the sensibilities of some, take a hard look at what we have now.
Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared on CBS’s “This Morning”, ABC’s “Good Morning America”, “The O’Reilly Factor”, CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking on character education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org