That Old Story


Recommended reading: “Sex Ed Program Provokes Fight Over Planned Parenthood in North Dakota” By Kate Sheppard

I had a professor in college who reminded us often that “there are no new ideas.”  He was a Shakespearean scholar talking about literary themes, but he was right on so many levels.  The big questions don’t change much – the answers evolve and the circumstances morph, but we are still contemplating the same expansive questions, making the same big mistakes.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised this week when I read about infringements on academic freedom, complete with feminist backsliding and new attempts to marginalize young women and the poor.  But I was surprised.  I was surprised to learn that a school like North Dakota State, a “land grant, student focused, research university” would bow to illogical political pressure and freeze its faculty’s research funding.  I am surprised that university administrators are willing to sacrifice evidence-based science and the time-honored practice of peer reviewed research for the sake of political favors and false morality tales.  I’m surprised that the politics of abortion and blatant religious conservatism can invade the hallowed halls of academic freedom and scientific method.  I am, however, not surprised that NDSU officials are hiding behind legal jargon and oblique references to thirty year-old laws, instead of admitting to the political and financial realities of the situation.

On January 15 NDSU President Dean Bresciani “blocked” a $1.2 million dollar US Department of Health and Human Service grant awarded to two NDSU professors.  Doctor Brandy Randall and Doctor Molly Secor-Turner were awarded the competitive grant to launch a program bringing comprehensive sex education to over 400 teens in the Fargo area.  According to NDSU’s press release the program targets some of the state’s most vulnerable teens – those who are homeless, in foster care, or in the juvenile justice system.  And teens would enter the program voluntarily with the written consent of their guardians.  This educational curriculum was to be delivered outside of the public school and included discussions about abstinence and healthy relationships, as well as “medically accurate” reproductive information.  But – and here is the real issue for several of North Dakota’s misguided state legislators – while the NDSU professors would be analyzing the program’s data, Planned Parenthood was set to run the program.

Opposition to Plan Parenthood might be fueled by the abortion debate, but the controversy in Fargo points to something more basic.  For centuries we have understood that knowledge and information often translate into freedom.  This understanding has led to the most of rudimentary of oppressive strategies: without an accurate and free flow of information it’s easy to control public opinion.  In truth, many of us are afraid.  We are afraid that if the young and undereducated are brought up to speed, our own unexamined moral absolutes might be challenged.

And so it is the same old story.  The unwinnable battle to legislate morality and keep knowledge out of the hands of those who need it the most.  Never mind the fact that Planned Parenthood does not provide abortions – or any other medical procedures – in North Dakota.  Never mind that we fought these battles in the 1970s, that in theory we moved beyond the notion that women are somehow held hostage by our bodies.  We can sexualize every aspect of our consumer culture and then pretend that no one is having sex.  We can use sex to exploit young people in the marketplace and in the media but we can’t have an honest conversation about the realities of a healthy – and yes: active – sex life.  It is backwards, but it is an old story.

– S

30 January 2013 update: A video and news story about yesterday’s “rally” in Fargo: NDSU Faculty Protest Freezing of Sex-ed Program Funds


10 thoughts on “That Old Story

  1. So beautifully written. We are struggling here at NDSU to love our institution when leadership does exactly what you describe above. Two years ago the President also, to appease state lawmakers, vowed to divest any state funds from our childcare center — almost shutting the center down. He did not tell us about this decision before announcing it to the media and campus community. If he had methodically went through a process, we would have together found a solution. We are one of the hardest working faculty bodies in the nation. Same old story.

    • Thank you Abby. You’re working hard at one of the most difficult jobs in the nation. I hope the solidarity of the NDSU faculty serves as an example for all college faculties.

  2. Well written and intelligent post. I’m at a loss though, as to why you think the government should pay $1.2 million to teach 430 rural kids about sexuality and lifestyle choices. That’s $2,790 per kid. Pure insanity. Here’s an idea: Parents should grow a pair and talk to their kids. American society should grow a brain and quit avoiding these issues in public as if they were immoral. Much cheaper and less messy that way.

    • Thanks for reading and for asking good questions. I’ll take a stab at a few answers: A) the $1.2 million doesn’t just fund 430 sex ed lessons, but funds the research and the researchers. It’s imperative that the program is monitored – that the science and evidence lead educators. A program to fund experts who assess the efficacy of the curriculum will ensure that we continue to find better ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexual transmitted diseases beyond the three years of the grant. B) The kids targeted by this grant – teens in foster care, the juvenile justice system, or who are homeless – don’t likely have parents (with “a pair” or otherwise) around or who can effectively address the realities of teen sex. C) exactly how much does a child born to an unprepared teenage couple cost the taxpayers? An uncomplicated delivery alone runs well over three thousand dollars.

    • It’s clear that parents for these particular kids.. the at -risk ones described above – aren’t doing the job… it seems to me that the governmnet might fund research that helps us fine ways to keep these teens from repeating a cycle of young pregnancy and poverty… .. might be better than funding a drone attack or two on Pakistan

  3. put so well. ignorance seems to have so much power and I can’t figure out why. Perhaps it is fear and a reluctance to examine the facts because of what they may show us about ourselves. It is much easier not to think.

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