Lauren Bialystok: Empty Schools Campaign denies children essential education

by: Lauren Bialystok | Guest Blog | Posted Oct. 8, 2015

Lauren Bialystok is an Assistant Professor of Ethics and Education at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. She is a former Peer Educator with Planned Parenthood of Toronto. (Photo credit: Lauren Bialystok)

Lauren Bialystok is an Assistant Professor of Ethics and Education at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. She is a former Peer Educator with Planned Parenthood of Toronto. (Photo credit: Lauren Bialystok)

It was another sad day for education.  On October 1, a coalition of parents staged a walk-out in continuing protest of the updated Ontario Physical and Health Education curriculum, which they proudly named the “Empty Schools Campaign.”  Once again, small children clutching placards penned by their parents trotted obediently behind angry adults outside of Ontario schools.  Once again, misrepresentations and bigotry were broadcast under the guise of parental rights.

The complaints of the most vocal opponents are by now familiar.  It’s “too much, too soon.” For the most radical critics, it’s simultaneously a gay conspiracy and a Marxist assault on all that is true and holy. Accusing Premier Wynne of taking away their children’s innocence, some opponents appear to believe that their children can graduate high school without even knowing that sex exists.

Just how naïve is this?  The 2010 Canadian Community Health Survey found that 68% of teens had had sexual intercourse at least once by the age of high school graduation (PDF) and many more had engaged in other forms of sexual activity.  Whether you consider this appalling, appropriate, or indifferent, it demands a coordinated response.  The rising rate of STIs among Canadian youth, the dismal prospects of teen mothers and the babies born to them, the violence directed at LGTBQ youth, and massive rates of sexual assault and victim-blaming can’t be addressed by sticking our heads in the sand.  But research shows they can be addressed (PDF) by exactly the kind of sex education our government just introduced.

Still, while most of the protesters’ assumptions about sex education can easily be refuted with evidence, many Ontarians are nagged by a lingering legitimacy to all this hoopla.  We are entitled to believe different things in this country, even not-so-scientific things, and to form our own value judgments on sensitive topics.  And there’s no topic more sensitive than sex.

The disproportionate emphasis on the immigrant identities of some of the protestors hasn’t helped.  Parental sentiments about their children’s sexuality can be informed by cultural and religious values that are beyond the legitimate reach of the State, regardless of whether someone immigrated last week or before Confederation.  (Just ask the Catholic School Board.)  The public discourse about sex education has at times morphed into an unsettling contest over the very meaning of being Canadian.

All this has gotten me thinking about driver education.  Driving makes life very convenient for some people – you might even say it’s a necessity.  And driving a comfortable car down a country road on a sunny day can be sublime.  But driving is dangerous.  And dirty!  Like, actually dirty.  I’m looking at you, Volkswagen.

Won’t teaching children in kindergarten to look both ways before they cross the street just encourage them to cross the street?  Won’t letting children watch movies in which teenagers drive cars just give them the notion that driving is okay?  I have a great idea: let’s pretend that cars don’t exist.  Say no to the vehiclization of our children! They’ll figure out how to drive on their own when they’re older.

To be fair, not all parents are that extreme.  Some believe in driver education but claim that it’s a private matter, and don’t think schools should stick their noses into it.  After all, wielding a two-tonne hunk of steel that’s responsible for thousands of fatalities a year requires moral education, and public schools aren’t in the business of moral education.

The problem is that some parents start talking about driving when their kids are 8, and others when they’re 16 and on the cusp of earning their license. Some parents only know how to drive automatic.  Some learned how to drive on the left side of the road. And some still get their information about cars from The Flintstones.

In some families children have already been hit by a car.  And they were told not to report damage to the police.

Then there are the parents who like to take pictures of their babies behind the wheel as soon as they’re able to sit up.  And by grade 1 these children can rhyme off terms like “carburetor” and “windshield wiper fluid” and even have small battery-operated cars that they drive around the house for practice.  But in the schoolyard little Rihana chats matter-of-factly about driving to little Mackenzie, whose parents only talk about cars in Church, and when Mackenzie is caught googling “rear-ending” later that day, all hell breaks loose.

Some parents are informed and organized, strictly controlling the availability of driving-related information in ways they deem age-appropriate.  Until the day little Caleb gets his hands on a copy of Off-Road’s Thunder Trucks.

Other parents may say driving is fine for other people, but in our family, we cycle everywhere, so our kids don’t need driver ed.  Even though there are 11.5 million registered vehicles in Ontario, and they share the roads with cyclists, all our children need to know about is bicycles.  The end.  What are you, anti-cyclist?  Stop infringing my rights!

And so on.

So, why is the sex education curriculum so relentlessly thorough, so cautiously non-denominational?  Because schools are the only place where we can make sure that all children get information that has been proven to accomplish shared social goals, like reducing teenage pregnancy, sexual assault, and cyberbullying.  It may make some people uncomfortable, and it may exacerbate a generation gap that is already being widened by technology, migration and globalization.  But those aren’t reasons to look the other way.

When parents pull their kids out of school to shelter them from sex, they are metaphorically taking off their children’s seatbelts.

Works cited in the article:

Lauren Bialystok is an Assistant Professor of Ethics and Education at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. She is a former Peer Educator with Planned Parenthood of Toronto. You can reach her via email at: [email protected]

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Lauren Bialystok

Lauren Bialystok is an Assistant Professor of Ethics and Education at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. She is a former Peer Educator with Planned Parenthood of Toronto.

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