Rooting Out Abstinence-Only Approaches — in Other Disciplines, Too

Jon Sanders
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Posted: May 05, 2007 12:01 AM

With the release of the Mathematica Policy Research study on select abstinence-only programs, and the resignation in disgrace of Deputy Secretary of State Randall L. Tobias, the comprehensive-ed movement is gearing up again. To put it lightly, the last two decades have been an increasingly difficult time for these educators and various affiliated profiteers from teenage sexuality. Starting in the 1990s, as Janice Shaw Crouse showed, teen sexual activity is down, teen pregnancies are down, and even teen abortions are down.

Despite these declines, however, the movement's pretext — "Kids are gonna do it anyway!" — continued to wow reporters. Now rumor has it that the movement is preparing to expand its educational franchise. They are preparing to promote several new programs based on the comprehensive-ed vision.

Granted, abstinence-only sex-ed programs are still the primary villain in comprehensive-ed world. But there are many other pedagogical approaches in a host of different subject matters that take approaches similar to abstinence-only — i.e., they teach kids to avoid dangerous activities. In comprehensive-ed pedagogy, instruction based on abstaining from risky behaviors is pie-in-the-sky, naïve and exclusionary. It doesn't reach the kids who are going to take those risks anyway. Those kids need to be taught the best ways to imperil themselves.

Take driver's education, for example. Current programs the country over are solely focused on having kids to abstain from illegal and unsafe driving. But since some kids are going to drive recklessly anyway, a responsible education program is going to try to reach those kids, too.

The comprehensive-ed approach to driver's ed would stress how good it would be for kids to obey posted speed limits, pass only in designated areas, not run red lights, and so forth. Having gotten that out of the way, it would move to the greater bulk of the course, for those who choose to drive dangerously. Kids would be taught to select cars with airbags and also learn about seatbelts, so that they have protection. They'd be taught "best practice" methods for "Safe Speeding," "Smart Drag-Racing," and "D-U-I Not D-I-E."

Then there's drug education. Surprisingly, most if not all public schools try to warn children away from using tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. That's it. Never mind that many kids already smoke, drink, and use drugs anyway. Those kids are clearly left out of the "Don't Do Drugs" approach to drug education. It's irresponsible and naïve not to teach kids safe methods of blackening their lungs and altering their consciences. The comprehensive-ed approach would rectify that troubling omission.

It's not that comprehensive drug education would get rid of the "just say no" approach. That will always be a component part, but it would be enhanced with a "but if you say yes, here's what to say yes to" addition. Kids would learn about safe smoking, for example. They'd learn how to tell among types of cigarettes and learn about the importance of filters and tar levels. There'd be time devoted to cigarette alternatives, such as clove and ginger cigarettes.

Kids would also be taught how to make informed choices among beer, wine, and spiritous liquors. They would also be taught proper handling procedures of razor blades for safer construction of fake IDs and formation of cocaine lines.

A key change would be the replacement of the "Officer Smiley" program, which teaches children how to recognize and avoid dangerous narcotics. The new "Street-Corner Smiley" program would teach children how to ensure the purity of narcotics they purchase from street-corner vendors, helping them avoid recreational drugs "cut" with other, even more dangerous drugs. Unless that's what they're looking for, of course.

Comprehensive drug education would also teach children about the importance of using clean needles, for when they decide they're going to do drugs anyway.

A third expansion of the comprehensive-ed approach would involve high-school chemistry. Under current practices, chemistry teachers carry on like Puritan preachers about the need for safety around the lab and the dangers of carelessly mixing chemicals. It's no secret that much of chemistry instruction centers on teaching which combinations of chemicals are combustible and dangerous to life and limb. This approach ignores the reality that many kids are prone to risky experimentation.

While not abandoning the current way of teaching students to avoid dangerous mixtures, the comprehensive-ed approach to chemistry would teach kids how to stay relatively safe when combining combustible elements. Proper goggle use, eye washing techniques, and emergency-number dialing will feature prominently. After making the appropriate overtures to lab safety, the rest of the comprehensive chemistry class promises to be a blast.

With these new programs, comprehensive-ed advocates hope to make up for the setbacks of the past two decades. Stay tuned for more additions.