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Pursue Excellence in Sexual Education

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The pursuit of excellence. That is the motto of Saline Area Schools. Excellence: that which is of very high or valuable quality, a virtue. What is most valuable? That which is beautiful, good, and true. In other words, excellence is achieving that which is beautiful, good, and true. These pursuits are what we exist for; these are our highest motivations. Is there a place for excellence in sexual education?

In a recent report, SAS stated a desire to reduce the percentage of students having sexual intercourse. By desiring the rates of students having intercourse were lower, they imply that their goal is that no child in high school be sexually active. That is the only logical conclusion to the statement, “we need to do more to bring the number of students reporting to have had sex in 9th and 11th grade down,” because it is an unqualified statement. It doesn’t say we want to push the percentage of 11th graders having intercourse lower than 30% unless they are in consensual relationships and use safety equipment. No, it is a simple goal that corresponds with the preponderance of evidence that reveals the negative emotional, physical, and social outcomes related to teenage sexual activity.

In setting this goal, our administrators recognize the frailty of our youth, no matter how many academic and athletic achievements they compile. What is best for their health, the health of our community, and the health of the world is that they are abstinent. Actually, they might mean chaste.

To explain that, let us return to excellence. Excellence is the pursuit of virtue. Abstinence is not a virtue. Abstinence is the action of self-control that avoids (abstains from) something, in this case, sexual intercourse. Certainly, there is a time and place for sexual abstinence, both outside of and even within marriage. However, if we are truly pursuing excellence, we must be pursuing the virtue of chastity. Chastity is the virtue that directs all our sexual desires, emotions, and attractions toward the dignity of the person and the real meaning of love. It falls under the cardinal virtue of temperance. While abstinence is saying “no” to something, chastity is saying “yes” to the demands of authentic love. And what is authentic love? Desiring the good of the other over and above yourself. 

Now, for some practical examples. An abstinent student that daily consumes pornography is not a healthy student, but an addict. He or she is not a selfless, serving individual that values the worth of others, but one who uses other unique, infinitely dignified persons for their own sexual pleasure. That is not excellence; it is selfishness. It is the opposite of love. For the opposite of authentic love is not “hate” but rather “use.”

Abstinent students that ogle each other with lustful desires and talk with their friends about the bodies of their classmates aren’t making a healthy learning environment, nor are they preparing for healthy relationships down the road. Once again, this is selfishness, not excellence.

When I view the current sexual education curriculum, I don’t see a curriculum that fosters excellence. I see one that operates on fear—fear of an STD, fear of pregnancy. Yes, fear is a strong motivator, but it is not the strongest one. If it were, no soldier would ever march into battle, and no explorer would ever set foot on Everest. The reckless behavior of many youth shows they are more prone to illusions of invincibility than fears of the physical sort.

Saline Schools, let us create a curriculum worthy of our students’ dignity! Our children are not slaves, to be controlled by fear. Nor are they animals, to be encouraged to follow every passion or desire. They are humans, who long for goodness, truth, and beauty. Let us educate them in excellence. Excellence is the cultivation of what is best in our humanity, which can only be achieved by self-control, and through self-control, self-sacrifice.  

Pope John Paul II, who lived in Poland through the terrors of the Nazi occupation, World War II, and subsequent Soviet rule said that the issue before us in the Third Millennium was freedom. Emerging out of a century full of totalitarian governments, would we simply be content with “freedom from”—not being oppressed and restricted so that we might do whatever we like, or could we go further and embrace “freedom for”—freedom for excellence.

An understanding of excellence can be found outside the realm of religion, too. What the classical Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition embraces is also manifest in many secular parts of society. For example, are Alternative Spring Breaks popular because kids need a reasonable excuse to get money from their parents for an exotic trip, or because they form virtue, allowing students to practice authentic love of others, giving themselves in service? Do parents enroll their children in disciplined, intense athletic programs only because they might earn a scholarship or do they recognize the formative value of athletics? Even if it goes unrecognized or unrealized, the longing for excellence—goodness, truth, and beauty—lies within each of our hearts, including the hearts of our students. Let us recognize, call out, and mature this longing for greatness.

Let us not have a hidden goal, but proclaim it boldly, confident in its beauty, goodness, and truth. The way of excellence includes the life of chastity; the life of chastity is crucial to a healthy person and a healthy society. Too often we bury this goal so as not to offend anyone. Instead, let us lead with vision and a goal! Let us set high expectations before our students, allowing them to rise up and enjoy the freedom of marital intercourse, without fear of disease, without the memories of past partners’ performance, without the emotional scars and broken hearts of romance gone wrong. Let’s give them the advantage of starting a marriage never having had a sexual partner, because these unions are least likely to end in divorce.

Abstinence until marriage and living the virtue of chastity throughout life is using freedom for excellence, versus merely having freedom from any universal values or truths. Are we such arrogant Third Millennials to so quickly dismiss and unhinge our society from the wisdom of our traditions, and in doing so, subject our youth to the full brunt of the whims of adolescence, to the anxious uncertainty of possibility without boundaries, and to the emptiness of life without ultimate meaning? Or can we give them the stability of life firmly fixed on excellence? Are our students objects or persons, animals or humans, slaves or free persons?                  

For an overview of the negative outcomes of sexual activity in teens, see: Thomas Lickona (2013) Educating for Character in the Sexual Domain, Peabody Journal of Education, 88:2, 198-211.

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