Bullying, sexuality and the essential concerns of education

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Fifty mind-numbingly respectable groups have asked Ontario to implement its highly prudent new sex ed curriculum. It was ready three years ago but Dalton McGuinty backed away after some hysterical fundamentalist protests. I'm not belittling political caution, it's part of the game, but something else may be at work: fear of a general panic among adults about what the hell is going on with kids and sex on the Internet.

A sophisticated arts critic recently told me she was aghast at sexual imagery her nieces can now access. A battle-scarred senior journalist who's fearlessly exposed major public horrors says the oral and anal sex that kids see online is "just wrong." As if it's all too much for them to handle. I'd like to add a touch of historical perspective.

The Star ran a recent story on how the FBI compiled a 119-page dossier in the 1950s on hidden sexual lyrics in "Louie Louie," an early rock 'n roll classic. Fear of "Louie Louie" lingered for decades. What were kids being exposed to? When there was no Internet there was terror of playing vinyl at different speeds. The whole point of lyrics in early rock was to mutter them and thus screw with the heads of your elders. (Try listening to Elvis's '50s hit, "Heartbreak Hotel" and decipher the words he's slurring.) Just to increase anxiety, recorded versions were often sanitized from live performances.

I'm not saying there are no new risks or challenges about sexuality for youth today. There are but there always were. Adults might want to provide models but they forget they received no usable models themselves. Parental models are always obsolete. Each generation is more or less on its own, though it would be nice to get a little help. That's what the sex ed curriculum tries to do: some terms and facts but even more, through discussion with elders, a sense that others have handled comparable stuff with at least some success, thereby providing kids a sense that they, too, will be able to deal with this and -- most important in my opinion -- we have confidence in your ability to do so.

If that doesn't sound maddeningly complacent enough, let me now include the adult panic du jour: bullying. If you're a parent about to send a kid into the school system, you may picture a feral swamp in which mean kids roam the halls with a B for bully on their T-shirts. You'd be surprised to learn the word almost never arises in context. Literally no one, according to kids and teachers, considers themselves a bully. There is the usual human range of conflict, aggression, damage -- which is complex, multi-sided, and which educators and kids have long dealt with as part of the learning/teaching process. The Internet has clearly added a new dimension. And there are kids who suffer horribly and whose parents are understandably furious. But does categorizing it all with a simplistic, one-sided term, as if it's the H1N1 virus, which you can then seek a cure for and pass laws against -- help, or make things harder?

Politicians crowding onto this bandwagon destabilize it further. Stephen Harper emotes on how bullying upsets him but some Ottawa Grade 5s told him his attack ads on Justin Trudeau were a purer case of bullying than you'll find in schoolyards. Heritage Minister James Moore, who this week announced a big anti-bullying project, was in Parliament last week insulting a group of Canadian artists who went expecting to be honoured. Eric Peterson (Oscar of Corner Gas) was so miffed he rose in the visitors' gallery, glowered at Moore and exited. He had the restraint not to bark, "Jackass."

I'm not saying Harper and Moore are hypocrites, though they are. I'm saying they, too, at their age and eminence, have issues about cruelty, conflict and nastiness that would qualify as bullying. They could use help, too.

Bullying (or what it ineptly refers to) and sexuality aren't sidelines to juggle so that the real task of taking arid tests like this week's EQAO exams can occur. They're the essential concerns of education, as an ongoing intergenerational examination of life's challenges. It's why we have teachers, and schools.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Brett Jordan/flickr

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