Monday, January 30, 2023

Lauren Bialystok and Lisa M. F. Andersen's "Touchy Subject"

Lauren Bialystok is associate professor at the Department of Social Justice Education, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, at the University of Toronto. Lisa M. F. Andersen is associate professor of History and Liberal Arts at The Juilliard School.

They applied the "Page 99 Test" to their new book, Touchy Subject: The History and Philosophy of Sex Education, and reported the following:
Lauren: On page 99, I look at evidence of public opinion in support of comprehensive sex education (CSE). It turns out that an overwhelming majority of Americans from across the political spectrum want most topics in CSE – including information about contraception, oral and anal sex, and the risks of “sexting” -- taught in schools, even though Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Education has dominated federal policy for four decades. From a straight democratic perspective, the justification for CSE is clear. But is that enough? What kinds of evidence matter, and how seriously should we take public opinion? A recent controversy in Ontario showed that, when a populist leader framed a particular CSE curriculum as a liberal project, a large number of people suddenly wanted to repeal the curriculum, even though they supported all its contents.

Lisa: In some ways, this page is very representative. It conveys why, for sex education policy makers, there are times when it’s hard to see a path forward; the Ontario incident is one of several controversies where misinformation regarding curriculum content fanned the flames of animosity. Even a leader who wants to listen to public opinion might have trouble figuring out what that is. The United States is often misguided when it comes to sex education – and the U.S. is the focus of our book – but there is plenty of unsound decision-making to go around.

Lauren: Right, we talk about how controversies over sex education are distorted to the point that we forget what we agree on and what we already know.

Lisa: And the conversation about sex education is more than just controversies. In my historical chapters, I show how sound deliberation by well-meaning people has resolved into a formidable amount of common ground. Ideas that were once vexing are now so widely accepted that we take them for granted: we should learn about sex before having it, sex education should support public health, and teachers should teach sex education differently from how they teach academic subjects.

Lauren: As much as the polarized camps described on page 99 disagree, they’re not disagreeing about any of that. That’s why tracing the historical journey should give us some hope for the future of sex education policy. We know that it’s possible to make progress because it’s something that we’ve done before.

Lisa: A browser opening to page 99 might give a reader the sense that we’re more pessimistic than we actually are, or that we’re suspicious of evidence because it can obviously be manipulated.

Lauren: This page actually appears in a section about the importance of using evidence and using it rigorously. Some types of sex education are demonstrably ineffective, and we’ve wasted countless years and billions of dollars wishing it were otherwise. Part of our purpose in the book is to refute the arguments for continuing with approaches that don’t work.

Lisa: And I think it’s clear that we oppose AOUME, even though we take issue with the oversimplified dichotomy of AOUME vs. CSE.

Lauren: Finally, I think that page 99 represents our book well because of its tone. We’ve written a serious academic work that is also … fun. Because, ultimately, sex is kind of funny.
Learn more about Touchy Subject at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue