from The Textbook Letter, January-February 1994
Or is it? Maybe it's not as tough as the experts imagine it to be. Maybe the rate of pregnancy among teenagers can be sharply and quickly reduced if the public schools will just start teaching from a book called Sexuality, Commitment & Family. Here, look at this handout from the book's publisher, an outfit called Teen-Aid. It says that the use of Sexuality, Commitment & Family by a school district in San Marcos, California, yielded a stunning result: In only two years, the "number of girls reported pregnant" at the San Marcos high school fell from 147 to 20. Isn't that impressive?
No, it is fictitious. It is phony. And the book is phony, too. Sexuality, Commitment & Family is advertised as a schoolbook but it is really a package of propaganda, designed to promote religious and political doctrines in public-school classrooms. Teen-Aid is an arm of the political faction known as the Religious Right (or the Christian Right or the Far Right), and Sexuality, Commitment & Family is a part of the Religious Right's attack on sex education.
Anyone who watches educational affairs nowadays knows that the Religious Right is keenly opposed to the concept that young people should learn about human sexuality. The ideology that gives rise to this opposition can't be explained or analyzed in rational terms, since it encompasses superstitions, arbitrary precepts, and doctrines that contradict each other. It also it partakes of an inherently irrational process -- an attempt to make the natural world conform to beliefs about the supernatural. I won't try, then, to analyze the Religious Right's ideology, or even to describe it as a whole, but I will note two aspects that are crucial for understanding this report:
For people who adhere to such views, the contemporary movement toward sex education in public schools has been alarming -- and all the more so because the concept of universal sex education embraces young women as well as young men: Young women will learn not only about sexual anatomy and physiology but also about their reproductive options, and about birth-control methods that will help them to manage their own bodies and lives.
The Religious Right's most prominent response to all this has consisted of campaigns aimed at blocking the initiation of sex- education programs in schools, or at restricting and vitiating whatever programs the schools have set up. But there has been another response as well, one that has been less conspicuous and has got far less attention in the popular press: Right-wing organizations have created their own, phony "sex-education" materials and have hawked them to school districts all over the country. Local sympathizers work to have these materials adopted by local schools, and when such efforts succeed, the bogus items displace or replace legitimate ones. When the items actually are used in classrooms, students are inundated with misinformation and nonsense, but they don't get legitimate information about sex.
The advocates and perpetrators of this fakery sometimes describe it as "abstinence-based" instruction, since students are led to believe that abstinence is the only workable method of avoiding pregnancy. (To the extent that students hear anything about birth control and safer sex, they hear scary stuff that is distorted, misleading or just false.) But in fact, this enterprise is ignorance-based: Its apparent purpose is to ensure that students will not understand matters of sexuality, and that female students will not learn anything that might interfere with their usefulness as breeding stock. In short: Keep them dumb, keep them pregnant.
Among the organizations that distribute fake sex-education materials to schools, two are especially prominent: Project Respect and Teen-Aid.
Project Respect, based in Golf, Illinois, is known chiefly as the source of two bogus books: Sex Respect (aimed at high schools) and Facing Reality (aimed at middle schools).
Teen-Aid, based in Spokane, Washington, is the outfit that we already have met, peddling Sexuality, Commitment & Family. That is Teen-Aid's book for high schools. Teen-Aid also sells a book called Me, My World, My Future (which is labeled for use in junior high schools) as well as an assortment of booklets, pamphlets and videos -- some produced by Teen-Aid itself, some issued by other organizations.
I have examined several of Teen-Aid's items, including both Sexuality, Commitment & Family and Me, My World, My Future. All the pieces that I have seen are overtly polemical in both purpose and style, all rely on obvious and outrageous distortions, and some deal in pseudoscience whose falsity will be evident to anyone who has had any respectable education at all.
The techniques by which Teen-Aid promotes its products are consistent with the products themselves, and I've been interested to see how Teen-Aid uses falsity and distortion in its promotional materials. For example, Teen-Aid once claimed to be the recipient of a "National PTA award for implementing HIV/AIDS education" -- but the claim was fictitious, and the National PTA's executive director responded by issuing a letter saying that his organization had not endorsed "programs or curriculums of any organization." After I learned about that case, I decided to check some of Teen-Aid's other statements. I looked through Teen-Aid's handouts, and I marked three claims that, I thought, could easily be checked:
Number of girls reported pregnant at our high school:
1984/85 . . . . . . . 147 (before Teen-Aid)
1986/87 . . . . . . . 20 (after Teen-Aid)
I wrote to Teen-Aid's national director, LeAnna L. Benn, and pointed out the three claims that had caught my eye. Then I asked her to send copies of the documents in which the federal Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Programs, Joe DeDiminicantanio, and "the Washington state HIV/AIDS office" had conveyed their respective expressions of approval.
Benn answered: "The promotional literature you referred to in your letter are out of print materials. I'm sorry we cannot help you in this matter."
Did she really think that a stunt like that would work? The issue was not whether the materials were in print -- the issue was whether they were, or ever had been, truthful. In my second letter to her, I noted that the promotional literature had been widely distributed and quoted, I iterated my interest in verifying the claims in question, and I again asked her for supporting documents. She did not answer, so I sent my request once more. She did not reply.
When I wrote to Joe DeDiminicantanio, who had become an assistant superintendent of the San Marcos Unified School District, I asked him to document the numbers pertaining to pregnancy rates, and I asked him to tell how, when, where and by whom the data had been collected. His short, vague reply gave none of the information that I had sought. He said that "the figures we used were based on informal figures" (whatever that means), and he enclosed a copy of what he called "correspondence I provided [to] Teen Aid." The undated and unsigned "correspondence" said explicitly that his district "in no way was attempting to do empirical data research." Nothing in the "correspondence" supported, or even resembled, Teen- Aid's published claim.
How about the claim that Teen-Aid materials are approved by the federal Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Programs? That claim is misleading. Here are the facts of the matter. Teen-Aid once got some federal money under the Adolescent Family Life Act, commonly known as "Title XX," which was adopted in 1981 and served partly as a device for funneling public funds to right-wing religious groups - - and the Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Programs, which administered grants under the Act, okayed some Teen-Aid materials for use in Teen-Aid's own projects. (A spokesman for OAPP, Lucy Eddinger, recently told me: "[The materials] never had blanket approval for use elsewhere or in other contexts, and we are not aware that they have been used in any other projects.") To the extent that Teen-Aid's claim implies that Teen-Aid materials have some sort of broad federal approval, the claim is misleading.
And now, what about the claim that "the Washington state HIV/AIDS office" has approved a part of the book Me, My World, My Future, as well as a video called AIDS: Learn & Live? This one is murky at best, because both items seem to exist in different versions. Deenie Dudley, manager of the HIV/AIDS Clearinghouse in Washington's Department of Health, says that the HIV section of a version of Me, My World, My Future was approved by the Department in 1988, "when we didn't have all the good research that has come along since then." The Department doesn't know whether that version is the one that Teen-Aid is selling now. The video about AIDS was rejected when Teen-Aid first submitted it, Dudley says, but Teen-Aid later came up with a corrected version that was accepted. Yet here again, she says, the Department has no way of knowing which version Teen-Aid is actually distributing.
William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.
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