June 29, 2008

When ignorance trumps logic

The fun thing about being an ATR is re-acquainting yourself a day at a time with subjects you've never had to deal with since high school, and for some of us, that's a really long time ago.

I don't remember, for example, ever seeing the word "heterotrophic" in the HS biology class I took 47 years ago, or actually at any other point in my lifetime. The kids had to identify it, though, in a quiz I administered a couple of weeks ago. Some of these new terms, I'm told, came in after the Big Bang theory, an hypothesis people started getting used to only after I finished high school. Maybe that's why I don't know some of these words. The point is that until I started subbing, I hadn't fully comprehended how much new-fangled science kids need to know before they can get a Regents diploma.

So, I'm pretty used to going into a class, seeing words and concepts possibly for the first time, and helping kids work through their assignments with the glossaries and indexes at the back of the textbooks.

Which is why I was really put off my game a couple of weeks ago in a Health class, where the teacher had left a review sheet for pregnancy and HIV. I thought surely with two sets of textbooks and all those finding tools, we'd have no trouble answering all her questions on body parts, m
icrobes, and birth control devices.

I thought wrong. What was missing from all those glossaries and indexes speaks volumes. Not listed were some of the most important words I could think of on the subject: birth control, diaphragm, IUD, sponge and spermicide. What was writ loud and clear was the word ABSTINENCE.

Let me say right up front that I have no problem with pushing abstinence. What I mind very much is pushing IGNORANCE, which is what happens when key words are purposefully omitted from research tools. I bet "heterotrophic" is in the index over at Living Environment, and don't tell me kids need to know that word more than they need to know the word "diaphragm."

The DoE's HIV/AIDS curriculum, which it says is designed to meet NYS and NYC ed department mandates, seems quite reasonable. Under Samples of What Students Learn, it says that in grades 7-12:
Adolescents learn to avoid alcohol and other drugs, which may impair their judgment and put them at increased risk for HIV/AIDS infection. They are strongly encouraged to abstain from sexual intercourse. Some lessons also address methods of prevention, including the correct and consistent use of latex condoms, which can greatly reduce the risk of HIV/STI infection among people who are sexually active. Lessons also address HIV testing and explore how HIV/AIDS has affected our society.

Not bad. (I have more of a problem, actually, with the bold approach taken in grades 4-6:
Sexual transmission of HIV is introduced, and students are urged to abstain from sexual contact. Abstinence from sexual intercourse is emphasized as the only 100% effective way to prevent infection. Students are advised on how to cope with pressure not only from peers, but also from older adolescents who may attempt to coerce them into risky behaviors.
Are these sentences meant for the upper grades, or is my idea of childhood thoroughly antiquated?)

What I find most interesting and quite scary is something in the DoE's curriculum overviews for HIV/AIDS instruction. The words "abstaining" and "abstinence" appear seven times for grades 7-12, while the word "condom" appears only once, in the title of one of the appendices.

Nothing like wishful thinking to combat disease.

This brings me to an issue that came up in a recent discussion at the NY chapter of Americans United, an organization dedicated to preserving the separation of church and state. A woman raised her hand to ask why AU considered same-sex marriage as one of its issues. She could understand it as a civil rights issue, but not specifically one that involved the establishment of religion. It was explained to her that when the government is pushed toward, or in this case away from, legislation by such groups as the Religious Right that have specific establishment agendas, the subject of that legislation becomes an AU issue.

In this spirit, maybe we should be asking the publishers of these two textbooks, Holt, Rinehart & Winston and Prentice Hall, on what possible intellectual grounds do they specifically omit references to almost every single method of birth control in their indexes and glossaries. I'll save us the trouble: there is none. These books show that individuals in this day and age can still convince publishers and school boards that censorship is worth more than knowledge.

I didn't learn much more that day about birth control than I knew before. I did learn, though, that even in a town as liberal as the Big Apple, you have to stay alert to the wily ways of groups willing to sacrifice information and study skills as they go about pushing their pretty questionable agendas.


  1. Unfortunately, your idea of childhood might be "antiquated," at least for some kids. I had a 4th grader tell me she thought she might be pregnant this year. I ref'd her to guidance, thinking the counselor would just need to correct her on how pregnancy occurs. Nope, it was a possibility, but she wasn't, thank goodness.

  2. Oh, no. You almost have to keep saying to yourself all the time: They're kids, they think like kids, they've physically grown up too fast but they still have kid emotions and kid needs, they're not adults, they're kids, think of them as you've always done: they're still kids. . . .