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Since John Oliver’s weekly deep dives tend to explode across the web, you may have seen this scathing expose of the sorry state of sex education in America which shows that how prepared you are for becoming sexually active and how safe you will be depends largely on where you’re living at the time. Or perhaps more accurately, what a bunch of middle aged men and women in windowless rooms think your sex life should be like. Just in case you haven’t, take a look…

What we’ve been effectively shown is that in America, when it comes time to sit down with their teenagers and talk to them about sex, all too many parents just say “um… well… err, don’t they teach you this stuff at school?” Now, saddled with the major responsibility of teaching kids how to become sexually mature responsibly, schools do one of three things and the following two of them are alarmingly far more common than the third. This first of them is to sit teenagers down in a class and say “um… well… err, don’t they teach you this at home?” because the teacher is poorly trained and doesn’t know much about the topic, uncomfortable talking about it, afraid of an immediate backlash by fundamentalist parents, or all of the above. The second of the most frequent responses is an abstinence only class where the “educators” are one step away from some sort of teenager exorcism, visibly holding themselves back from starting an assembly or a class with “we gather here today so the Lord can purify thee of your filthy carnal urges…”

Far too few teenagers actually receive comprehensive sexual education that is legally required to be medically accurate. That’s horrible because despite the asinine threats and rhetoric from abstinence-only dogmatists, comprehensive sex ed has been proven to accomplish every goal they claim to be pursuing. California refused federal funds for abstinence-only education so the state can teach what it wanted and found that open and accurate sex ed delayed the average age of first sexual encounter and sent the rates of STDs and unwanted pregnancies to record lows. In the meantime, studies of how well abstinence-only education fares found the opposite results. Instead of being scared out of sex as intended, teenagers indoctrinated with it had sex younger, were less likely to use protection, and were more likely to get infected or pregnant, or both. Remember virginity pledges, which 82% of those who made them denied making them in the first place after a few years and had sex anyway? Every shred of evidence shows that this form of sex ed is an abject failure which makes things worse for those who must endure it and comprehensive sex ed is an empowering force for long term personal and social good.

It’s at this point that rational people would stop, look at the all of the available stats, and defund abstinence-only education instead of giving it even more money because funding public health hazards is a really stupid thing to do. But we’re not dealing with rational people. We’re dealing with the kind of people who want to be able to tell how many times you had sex by the number of kids you have. These are people with a pathological obsession with everyone’s genitals and whose internal cultural dynamics are best described as abusive. In fact, those abstinence-only educators in the video look overdue for a psychiatric evaluation. They give unsolicited, woefully uneducated advice, then defend themselves by basically slut-shaming those of us who are fine with actually having a sex life beyond the bi-monthly missionary with the intent to conceive. Like the sneering polyamorists of over-sexed New Age woo-friendly havens who assume that if you are monogamous, there’s something wrong with you, the abstinence zealots declare that there is nothing to be gained by more than one sexually active relationship but misery and woe, and the most devoted and irrational few even want premarital sex to be punishable by law.

But perhaps even worse than the hysterical moralists who refuse to accept that their way failed consistently for the last 60 years, that they cannot reshape society to their personal whims, and that despite what they’re told on talk radio and in the news, people are actually having sex with fewer and fewer partners each generation, are the politicians who pander to them. Allowing the irrational and dogmatic to rule over sex ed in their school districts with an iron fist simply for the sake of votes is a massive disservice to both the kids and the community. In their quest for the title and the paycheck, the politicians who could change things keep on allowing their cities and towns to shoulder the fallout of the terrible education kids will receive. No one is holding any of them accountable for the single teenage moms, the rise of STDs, the extra taxpayer cash that will need to help with the damage, or the toxic culture that excuses and perpetuates extremely dysfunctional relationships. And for as long as only the aggrieved senior citizen told by tabloids and sleazy pundits about imaginary crises goes out to vote in local elections, on one will…

new world order

A while ago, a seemingly harmless opinion article about digital currency on a current events site provoked a flood of conspiracy theorists claiming that digital money was a tool for the New World Order to track down those they didn’t like, or that it was one of the signs of the End Times which were described in Revelations. Considering that the Illuminati probably don’t care about how you spend your time and money while planning global domination and whatnot, the odds that digital money was going to make you a target for the NWO seem rather slim. But there’s another news-making Mark of The Beast out there, according to a Texan high school student, an RFID tag to track attendance and make sure that a certain district gets its daily allotment per student. When she refused to wear it, the school suspended her and told her parents she should either wear a tag or find a new school. The parents were quite obviously furious about what they see as major violations of their freedom of religious expression and the legal manure soon hit the fan.

Considering that equating the mark of a demonic creature most historians say serves as a rather heavy-handed metaphor for Roman emperors, with an RFID tag in a badge seems hyperbolic at best, there is a very valid issue in all this. There’s significant potential for abuse if you can track the movement of every student at will and if the webcam case in Pennsylvania is any indication, administrators will abuse their privilege and law enforcement will decline to punish them, which really makes the mind boggle because the administrators in question took hundreds of candid pictures of students involved in various stages of undress and the FBI would’ve had a very solid child pornography case on its hands, one they should’ve made and prosecuted. What will RFID tags reveal about students’ habits and will administrators drunk with newfound power abuse this information to met punishments that cross the line? As the above-mentioned case shows, the only way to prevent that is not to give the administrators this information in the first place.

I suppose one could argue that millions of adults wear RFID tags in their ID badges for work and seem no worse off for it. But adults choose to work at a place that tracks their movements. High school students have very little say or choice in the matter and for many, moving to new districts may not be an option and if it is, an unfair one at that. For conspiracy theorists who ran with this story in InfoWars, this disregard for students’ rights is just the latest reminder that schools exist as brainwashing factories for the powers that be, an long held idea that both left wing and right wing conspiracy theorists believe. But the real issue we need to address is why this idea was not vetted with the public before it was implemented and what it says about how schools view how to educate their students. Are the kids and teenagers entrusted to them merely id numbers, exam and standardized test scores, and fund sources? How quickly the administrators wanted to tag their students and how they reacted when one said no seems to say an awful lot about how that school district views education and its students, and what it says is not encouraging.

When the media decides to address the topic of how distracting it is to be constantly connected to the web via just about every electronic device we now carry, it all too often adopts the Nicholas Carr approach, which is to sound the alarm and warn us that because someone has trouble concentrating and checks his e-mails a bit too much, it means that using the web is turning us into idiots with the attention span of a fly. Thankfully, when a new article on the subject in NYT took a whack at cataloging kids’ digital distractions, it decided not to just parrot technophobic truisms, but gave a more or less accurate account of how and why high school students slack off with social media sites. And although the article didn’t explicitly call out what’s really behind the trend in digital procrastination, it gave more than enough details to show that slacking off is nothing new and when given the chance, kids would much rather chat, watch videos, or play games rather than do their homework. If you weren’t aware of this and think that kids are being over-stimulated into ADHD, you’re simply wrong.

Here’s the problem. We require kids to simultaneously be well rounded in math, science, and the humanities while at the same time narrowing down their specialization so they choose the proper major in college. There is some leeway and we do allow them to focus more in one area than in others, but overall, we want them to both study everything, and specialize in something by their senior year in high school. However, a high school student is probably not sure what he or she really wants to do. Yes, the student probably has an idea and if it seems like a really exciting thing to do for a living, that student will obsess over it and devote all available time and effort to making it happen, just like 17 year old wannabe filmmaker Vishal Singh featured in the story. He won’t get into any serious film school with a 2.3 grade point average and his portfolio isn’t going to outweigh a university’s requirement for at least a 3.0 if not a 3.5 to even consider an applicant viable because colleges do require students to take classes that will not be directly related to their majors. The last thing they need is the kind of student who obsessively studies his favorite topic at the expense of every other academic area. But in an obsessed high school student’s mind, all that matters is what he wants, not what will soon be required of him by people with who he can’t negotiate and plead until they eventually give in.

Likewise, students don’t like to do homework, period. Procrastination is basically an avoidance mechanism, an umbrella term for any distractions with which the students can occupy themselves not to do something. To then go around and ask them whether technology is really distracting them from doing their work gives them an extremely convenient way out, and virtually all the kids interviewed for the article immediately latched on to the evil computer excuse. Oh sure they’d just do their homework, but that damn siren song of Facebook! This is the reason why they can’t just concentrate and churn out a mind-numbing six page essay on the history of agricultural communities in pre-industrial America, not the fact that they were given an assignment they could not be paid to care less about and which will be forgotten as soon as it’s graded. And really, even as an adult grad student, I can understand. There’s nothing worse than doing an assignment you’re being forced to do by a professor who’s just following the syllabus and doesn’t want to give you the time and the ability to research the relevant topics on your own. Maybe that’s what’s needed, to give high school students more independent study time, allowing them to pick topics that interest them more and hold them accountable for doing a good, thorough analysis of the subject in a paper and a presentation?

What we’re seeing with all the time students are spending on Facebook, YouTube, and texting doesn’t show some nefarious technological addiction at work, threatening to annihilate the attention span of a generation, but reveals just how little students are engaged by a teaching style that hasn’t evolved with the modern world. For all the talk about “engaging young minds” and “encouraging creativity and flexibility,” we’re still sitting our students down in a classroom and talking at them like we did in the 1950s. There are times when this is the appropriate thing to do, but in many cases, there has to be more being done to get students to pay attention, and teachers need to demand more of their students than passive silence. The kids are all right, they’re just being kids. We’re just not revising our teaching methodology to keep up with the times and blaming our total lack of progress in engaging new generations on the boogeyman of technology.

[ photo illustration by Gilad Benari ]

Apparently, if you spy on students through webcams in computers you gave them for a supposedly academic purpose, then snap thousands of pictures of teens sleeping and even partially undressed, it’ll only cost you a relatively minor $610,000 with about 70% of that sum being spent on legal fees. For a school district that can afford to give its students laptops, this must be a bargain if you don’t count the lawyers gorging themselves in the process. I mean it’s one thing if students were trying to use school property to download porn, or hack into the school’s system to change their grades, but to simply spy on them? That’s not just ridiculous but obscene from a legal and ethical standpoint. Instead of a slap on the wrist, the administrators should’ve been fired. It’s not like invasion of privacy and pervy snapshots of minors aren’t criminal offenses worthy of serious note and could just be waived off if someone says he really didn’t mean to take all those pictures for anything illegal.

But that’s apparently the decision in a lawsuit involving Harrington High School in Pennsylvania, which began when a student was sternly warned by an assistant principal to stop “improper behavior in his bedroom.” The behavior in question was snapped by a spy cam in his computer, one of the over 66,000 pictures of students taken by administrators who claimed that they only activated the cams when a computer was reported stolen or missing, and that the cams were just part of an anti-theft system. Yeah. Makes perfect sense. This certainly explains why the system was used tens of thousands of times to capture students eating candy, or changing their clothes, or sleeping. Surely, if we start digging deep enough, we’ll find a missing or stolen report for just about each and every picture snapped, including the hundreds of the same exact student right? Oh, wait. No, no we won’t because the school just decided it would take pictures on a whim and can’t provide any reasons for doing what it did, even though according to the FBI, they had no criminal intent per se.

I don’t really care about intent in this situation because there’s absolutely no reasonable justification for taking so many inappropriate pictures of minors. What kind of bonehead in the school’s administration could’ve ever possibly thought this was a good idea and why does he or she still have a job instead of facing jail time? Let’s imagine that a manager in a computer repair store installs this kind of software in minors’ laptops and snaps more than 66,000 photos of them, a number of which could be considered borderline child porn. You can bet that he’d be thrown in prison so fast, he’d need medical attention from the friction burns on his posterior after corrections officers hurl him into his cell. The administrators? Declared immune from prosecution after doing almost exactly that and continuing to draw their typical six-figure taxpayer-funded salaries. The parents should be outraged, which I’m sure that many of them are, and demand that heads roll as they keep bombarding the district’s superintendent with call after call on the subject. Really, I can’t understate just how insipid and illegal the administrators’ actions were, and how there’s no excuse for them being immune from prosecution.

Hey, at least they stopped taking secret pictures of students when the media got wind of what they were doing and the lawsuit landed on a judge’s desk so at least they do have enough brainpower to realize they what they did was wrong and if they stood their ground they’d be in even more trouble than they thought they’d be. And at the same time, this fact also shows that they don’t seem to have enough of a moral or ethical compass to get the idea that spying on students in their own homes is illegal and wrong. How people like this are ever put in charge of thousands of teenagers, and who lets them stay there despite their imbecilic decisions, I don’t even want to know. But what I, and I’m sure many others, would really want is to see these people as far away from any position of power in any school system as humanly possible.

[ illustration by Ian Jones ]

This isn’t so much a story as it is a cry for help. For some reason, a woman who volunteered at an elementary school library in SoCal either heard about a child finding the definition for oral sex in a dictionary, or her kid just happened to come across it, and demanded that the district pull all the dictionaries, to protect and kids of course. And can you guess what the district did? They obliged. And just to add another bizarre twist to this tale of censorship gone ridiculously, pathologically awry, the district is actually forming a committee to decide if they’re willing to allow the dictionaries back in the library. Yes, it seems that the dictionary is just too hot for school. Rumors say that it might even contain definitions for the words “erotica,” “pornography,” and “sexy…”

Did you need any more proof that we’re living in an age of over-parenting, so much so that there’s a backlash against helicopter parents who smother their children to to point of absurdity? The really bizarre twist when it comes to overbearing moms and dads is that they seem to worry about everything except giving their kids an honest discussion about sex. In fact, by the time sex is even mentioned, it’s a safe bet that their kids already had their first sexual experiences. And considering the prudish, abstinence only stance of many sex ed and health classes, they’re more likely not to use contraception, which puts them at greater risk of pregnancy as well as sexually transmitted diseases. Why? Well, in the quest to scare kids from having sex, they prudes who oversee these classes tell them that contraception doesn’t work and the same parents who will hire a college coach to make sure that little Michael or Emma get into the right college don’t seem to be worried about this problem in the least, trying to avoid having an important discussion as much as possible.

This might seem like a strange notion to the self-appointed guardians for morality everywhere, but as long as there are humans with hormones flowing through their bodies, there will be sex. Not only that, but people who have sexually active relationships tend to be healthier, live longer, have higher self-esteem and less stress. If we constantly baby our younger generations and pretend that if we censor everything sexual there wouldn’t be any STDs or teen pregnancies, the only people we’re fooling are ourselves. Here’s the thing about kids. They grow up and become adults who go on to have their own kids. Isn’t that the cycle of life? So to do everything in your power to help your children get into a good college and find a career but simply gloss over something as crucial as sex ed or put it off until it’s too late, seems like an awfully big gap in the list of parental priorities. And if you’re trying to pull the freaking dictionary off the shelves for containing a medically appropriate sexual term, you’re on your way into the kind of denialism that should be a warning to all of us.

When I was studying biology as a freshman in high school, there was a test on human evolution. The last question was designed to test our understanding of how evolution really worked and almost all of us got it wrong. We were asked if the changes that gave rise to modern humans were localized or global. After grading and handing back our tests, the teacher was surprised so many of us answered that the changes were global. It’s not like we have evidence for early hominids anywhere other than Africa. So why would we think it was global? If all the available evidence points to one place, how can we say it was worldwide?

confusion in a science classroom

But despite being told to follow the evidence, we were still taught that animals adapted to their environments. Even though that’s not how evolution works, we were taught its mechanisms in the language which implied progression and design. An animal that started eating something different than any of its ancestors was said to have changed to exploit a new food source. Now, I know that’s the reverse of what really happens. The animal found a new food source because it mutated into something new and it was the food that was the adaptation, not the animal itself. But back in freshman biology, we didn’t know any better. None of us asked about the evidence of how exactly animals could adapt on cue. As you can see by our test results, we were still not quite sure what evolution was and how it actually worked.

Students who want to ask that question are very unlikely to get a definitive answer from any of their science teachers. According to most estimates, nearly 7 out of 10 science teachers don’t have any credentials in a relevant discipline. They go by often outdated textbooks and antique course plans made by bureaucrats who’s specialty is politics that uses school funding and the students who attend the schools under their authority as pawns in their intricate games. More often than not, school boards are becoming tools of indoctrination for the personal ideologies of people with an agenda, people who seek to educate by popular consensus, rather than facts to fulfill their self-serving goals. Pupils are left confused, conflicted and unable to rely on their teachers to give them straight answers. They’re being taught simplistic, incorrect ideas about evolution with misleading and scientifically inaccurate language.

While many creationists are that way by indoctrination from birth, many more join their ranks because they’re being taught the wrong things in the wrong ways. Scientists who say that while kids are in school, they should be taught evolution without interference and creationism in all its incarnations can be discussed in college or grad school, are missing the point. You can’t tell teenagers one thing, then after they graduate and go to college, tell them something else. If the scientists really want to make sure evolution is being taught in schools, they need to confirm if it’s being taught the right way. Telling a thirteen year old that evolution designed an animal for something or that evolution exploited this or that, or that an animal evolved to do something is a recipe for an educational disaster. And that disaster is happening every day in classrooms all over the nation, undermining the quality of science education.

As long as evolution is taught backwards, using poorly written books and inaccurate language, we’re sabotaging science education. It’s not enough to protest school board decisions that try to inject pseudo-science and religious canon into public schooling. It’s important, but it’s just half the job. The other half is to fix our broken evolution curricula.