Forum tackles sex and religion

Saturday, March 8, 2008 | 7:54 p.m. CST; updated 4:13 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Where are children six hours a day, 180 days a year? They are in school, where they learn not only about math variables and vocabulary but also about the diverse values of society.

Debate over who decides what is taught in public schools was the theme of a “Sex and Religion” forum at MU on Saturday . The College of Education, which sponsored the forum as part of its Education Week ‘08, chose the topics of sex education and religion because of the controversy surrounding both.

The forum featured five panelists, all of whom were given 15 minutes to present their views.

Rep. Therese Sander, R-Moberly, spoke about the importance of teaching abstinence to students. Last year Sander sponsored House Bill 1055, which gave Missouri schools the option of teaching abstinence.

“If we would as a society stand behind abstinence, we would decrease exponentially the costs to the state of child care, child support, food stamps, housing, prisons, drug rehab and divorce,” Sander said, arguing further that she feels contraceptive education is confusing to children.

“While we are telling them, ‘don’t do drugs — you can control yourself,’ and ‘don’t drink alcohol — you can control yourself,’ we are also saying, ‘don’t have sex, but since you can’t control yourself, here’s how to do it safely,’” Sander said.

Panelist Allison Hile, who’s the director of the Teen Pregnancy and Prevention Partnership, countered that point. Hile said she disagrees that abstinence education is the best choice for schools.

“Sexuality education should not be an ‘either or’, it should be both helping our youth know when and how to postpone sexual activity, as well as providing medically accurate and complete information,” she said.

Richard Koffarnus, a history and philosophy professor at the Central Christian College of the Bible, voiced his views on religion in schools, saying that he doesn’t think the nation’s founders intended for the separation of church and state to mean what it does today, and that it bothers him schools are afraid to even mention religion these days because of the flood of court cases over religious freedom in schools.

Dan Winter, director of the American Civil Liberties Union for Kansas and Western Missouri, said he feels religion can be taught in schools when it’s in a “nonproselytizing manner.”

Teaching creationism or intelligent design, which includes supernatural elements, is inappropriate in public schools, though, Winter said, citing a recent court case, Kitzmiller v. Dover.

“The right to practice religion or no religion at all is the most fundamental rule of the Bill of Rights, and government should be out of the decision,” he said.

Panelist Don Schulte, a social studies teacher and director of the Missouri Education Association, addressed the government’s role in education in general. He argued that No Child Left Behind has been detrimental to learning because it’s decreased the variety of material taught in schools and put too much emphasis on teaching to the test.

“Learning is remembering what you are interested in,” Schulte said. “A teacher’s job is to get a student interested beyond just getting a good grade.”

Tim Lewis, an associate dean in the College of Education, closed out the panel’s discussion by expressing his own concern with the government’s say in deciding what is taught. Lewis said he feels it’s best when educators make the decisions.

Ultimately, though, Lewis said he feels the decision of what public schools teach should lie in the hands of the public.

“We as educators like to think we are in charge, but students will decide for themselves, independent of what those of us on this platform have said today,” Lewis said. “All the people in this audience will decide for themselves.”

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Paul Burnett March 8, 2008 | 10:05 p.m.

Tim Lewis said he feels the decision of what public schools teach should lie in the hands of the public.

This is a dangerous populist appeal, that can lead to excellence - or to demagoguery.

Recently, several county school boards in Florida were misled into passing "Voluntary Ignorance Resolutions," advising the State school board against adding the word "evolution" to the state educational standards. It was pointed out that these same counties already had the lowest test scores on the state standardized tests. Their creationist-inspired attempts to determine what the public schools should teach - and not teach - provides an example of how Tim's idea could go wrong.

Believe it or not, professional educators know more about what to teach than amateurs. Catering to the provincial ignorance of the local population is just not the right thing to do.

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