In his column entitled "Big Mouth, Big Ideas" (signed piece, Feb. 21, 1995), David B. Lat has taken an incorrect premise upon which to base a flawed argument for not teaching sex education in public schools. His logical mistakes are interesting, considering Lat (himself a debater) spends most of the column bashing high school debaters for their lack of intellectual savvy.
In his flawed premise, Lat criticizes the high schoolers for demonstrating "a woeful lack of knowledge," standing for platitudes, and arguing "a poor excuse for a case." Apparently, Lat has forgotten what it is like to be a nervous, inexperienced fourteen year-old from a random American high school, debating at the mythical Harvard University in front of mythical Harvard students. These debaters do not have the eight years of debating experience that Lat has; indeed the Harvard tournament brings many schools that only have the money for one or two tournaments a year, and thus, their students may not have the experience that even other high-schoolers have. Lat expects them, somehow, to be fluent in social contract theory, social Darwinism, and theories of justice and equality. They are high school students, many of them just starting to learn how to speak in public, and Lat seemingly demands the kind of quality that he is used to seeing from the top debaters from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Some of them might be Ivy-bound, but many of them may not be, and Lat, from his high Harvard horse, expects the very best, when many are just striving to speak for all of their allotted time. Besides, regardless of how he expects these students to debate, the ability to speak in public does not necessarily equal intellectual ability.
His flawed argument is that since students don't even understand "the basics of American history," and we should therefore concentrate on teaching them these basics, and not "multicultural niceties" like sex education. Consider the following question: which would you want your child to be more knowledgeable about, the dangers of unprotected sex, or Hobbes' notion of the social contract? When it comes to all-too-common dangers such as teen pregnancy and AIDS, I think that knowing how to use a condom is far more important and relevant to the average high school student's life than being able to explain social Darwinism to a judge. And in terms of society at large, I would rather have millions who may not understand the niceties of the social contract than have millions with AIDS or unwanted babies. As sad as it may be, most American high school students are just trying to survive--a step necessary to take before moving on to theories of justice.
The causes of our present dilemma are many, and solutions are rare and difficult. But Lat proposes to stop teaching such solutions in the schools. Where will the children learn these necessities? Ideally, from their parents, yes. But we know that this is not a reality, because many of the parents themselves are unable or unwilling to address these issues, or the problem would not be as pressing as it is. David Lat's heart is in the right place; he wants the American student to be eloquent, intelligent, and well-read. Unfortunately, first they need to be alive, and unburdened with a child--two rather large impediments to being conversant on the social contract. Jason Gottlieb Graduate School of Arts and Sciences