I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of critical thinking in education. Sure, that’s partially due to visiting schools that ask this of their students and seeing what kids do. But it’s also because our society asks us to live in complexity and deal in nuance. Throughout our lives we have to figure out what to do when faced with decisions that feel momentous. Questions about what job to take, where to live, what you should look for in a romantic partnership—these are important, and luckily, we’re often given some time to reflect on them before making a choice. I want schools to prepare all people for making these decisions, reflecting thoughtfully and thoroughly on what they should do and why.
But I actually care way more about how schools prepare people for spontaneous decisions, where time isn’t a luxury and we may not be at our clearest and best. I want schools to provide kids with opportunities to think about who they are, fundamentally, and what choice they should make when they have find themselves with more than one option.
I want schools to actually prepare our kids to make good decisions about how they treat other people. And to avoid platitudes that come along with speaking in generalities, I want schools to teach our kids about consent and rape.
I recently read Laurie Halse Anderson’s piece in Time Magazine (I’ll refer to her as LHA going forward), which talks about her experience of going to schools around the country to talk about her novel, Speak. I’ve read Speak several times, I’ve heard LHA speak (she signed several of my books, using different words to encourage me to be the kind of teacher that kids need), and I believe that her thinking is important. In the essay she wrote for Time, she talks about how survivors of rape come up to her at the ends of her talks to share pieces of themselves and their experiences with her. But she also talks about how students come up to her to ask questions about how to help others survive the trauma of rape or questions about moments they found themselves in when they behaved in ways that were most likely predatory, even if they didn’t understand that at the time. All of this brings LHA to the conclusion that schools need to do a much better job of talking to its body about sex.
As a teacher, I appreciate that this is a hard topic to take on. People, including parents, have a wide range of views about sex in large part because it touches on the third rail of education: religion. In too many ways, talking about sex is taboo. But the absence of informed knowledge doesn’t extinguish interest, and it certainly doesn’t mean that people stay devoid of information. Instead, kids look to other sources to figure it out.
This is problematic. Without good information, people can’t make good choices (see this piece from NPR for information about one related example, abstinence-only education). When we don’t know what it means to give enthusiastic, sober, continuous consent, how do we know when we have it? More importantly, how do we know when we don’t? Why is consent even important? How do you know when something becomes unwanted? What does it mean to attend to verbal and non-verbal cues?
People find themselves in uncomfortable situations regularly, and if the #MeToo movement has highlighted anything, I’d argue it has shown just how often people find themselves in unwanted and uncomfortable sexual situations. And in those situations, people have shown time and time again, that they aren’t sure what consent means, when to stop, or why engaging in behavior that isn’t clearly and enthusiastically wanted by everyone involved should never happen.
We need education, and we need it to provide folks with the skills and abilities to think critically about the situations they find themselves in so that we create way fewer moments (and ideally, none) that are unwanted. We need to empower teachers and schools to give accurate, factual information about even the most complex and controversial topics. Kids want to be prepared for the world they’ll encounter outside of school walls. Let’s prepare them to be citizens in a democracy; let’s prepare them to be college- and career-ready; let’s prepare them to be good and decent people.
Image by Sara Bailey.