In just the past couple of years, teaching high school students about sexuality has been completely upended. Before beginning the unit on sex, there used to be a piqued attentiveness, an awakened primal anticipation. But now students approach sex-ed with an enlightened glow, a condescending smirk and a smug ideological certainty. Perhaps it has always been wrong for schools to try to teach about sexuality, but there are strange new reasons for caution today, which have nothing to do with corrupting innocence or demystification.
I teach religion at a Catholic high school, and my approach to teaching sexuality has always emphasized the psychological and spiritual complementarity of man and woman, husband and wife. It had been a gratifying teaching experience, with many of those ‘ah ha’ moments, when things vaguely known are brought into sharp focus. It was rooted in basic anthropology: on average, men are taller, have 60 percent more upper body strength, more facial hair, deeper voices, are more aggressive and goal oriented and are motivated by an abstract sense of duty. On average, women are more empathetic, tactile and interpersonal, more perceptive of non-verbal cues and much more verbal, speaking 5,000-10,000 more words a day. Fundamental female traits are ordered toward the nurturing of children, while male traits are ordered toward the provision and protection of vulnerable mothers and children.
These descriptions still occasion a powerful awakening, but getting there, past the minefield of gender ideology, is for neither the foolish nor the faint of heart. There is graceless condescension in the eyes of students who taunt with set-up questions about homosexuality and transgenderism. They are among the enlightened vanguard, and we, of the pre-Kaitlyn Jenner epoch, are not merely benighted, we are a ragged, defeated army in shameful retreat, the oppressor laid low, worthy of mockery.
Many of my colleagues, if they have not already defected to the cult of nominalist gender plasticity, feel a hopeless dismay. But there is a way forward. Before we can do anthropology, we must do a little philosophy.
Our students have never been so ideologically certain, so impenetrably stupefied by the spirit of the age. So rather than trying to drill through their rock of certainty, it is better to grow ideas in the soft ground around it. A good place to start is with a basic truth about the modern soul: the de-personalization of mass culture has given rise to a reactive over-emphasis on the individual and her particular experiences. Basically it runs like this: Huge anonymous cities, huge networks of depersonalized production-consumption, vast webs of bureaucratic interdependence, incomprehensible degrees of complexification, media and entertainment which manipulate and massage our perceptions, all together these things make us feel like puppets dangling on the strings of an invisible puppet-master. We feel imprisoned behind invisible bars, shackled by invisible chains. We long to remember or discover or construct a true self, and so anyone who can be cast as an oppressed victim in the process of overcoming, is an avatar of the authenticity we crave, a model we wish to emulate. These avatars become irreproachable symbols. Homosexuals and now the transgendered are the latest instantiations of the oppressed losing their chains, and so they are avatars of our own desire for liberation and authenticity.
Students need to see this model recurrent throughout modern history. It is found in the authenticating primitivism of rock music, which was a reaction against the oppressive orderliness of symphonic music, in the egalitarianism of blue jeans, which rejected the constraints of class hierarchy, vague spiritualisms that rejected the strictures of religion, and on and on. The ancient Greeks styled it as a tension between the gods; a perennial tension between Apollonian orderliness and the wild abandon of Dionysian chaos. Students need to see this motif, they need to come up with their own examples of it, they need to recognize it as a sub-rational reflexive response, and when they have arrived at this point, this dynamic will have a little less power over them.
Next, students must be introduced to the naysayer and the iconoclast as hero. The Beatitudes found in St. Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount are the perfect example. The Beatitudes are forever new, radical and mind-blowing. Every natural instinct is inverted and its very opposite is held up as the path to blessedness. Also very compelling are Socrates Apology, and Jordan Peterson’s testimony before the Canadian Senate on Bill C-16, which, among other things, makes it a hate crime to utter the unwelcome truth that a man is a man even if he wishes to be referred to as a woman.
Next, students must be reintroduced to the lost art of debate. The first truth about a debate that it is not a quarrel, a vindictive attack indifferent to truth. Lawyers in court refer to their opposite as friend, because the system is built on the hope that each in representing the position of his side, and critiquing the position of the other side, brings the court closer to the truth. A debate requires not only the preparation of your own argument, but a fair and thorough and vigorous anticipation of the strengths of your opponent’s argument. To debate well, you must anticipate the arguments to be made by your opponent.
After all of this is done, the last step is to introduce Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. This short thought experiment taken from Plato’s Republic, is the final inoculant against the re-emergence of the oppressive spirit of the age. It compares us to prisoners in a cave, chained facing a wall upon which appear shadows. The shadows are all we see, and therefore are what we believe to be real, but in fact they are merely one-dimensional silhouettes of real beings passing before the sun above and behind us. One from among us breaks free, and makes the painful ascent from the cave. Over time his eyes become accustomed to the light and he sees things as they truly are. But then he is forced back to the cave, stumbling and disoriented, because his eyes are no longer accustomed to the dark. He tells the others what he has seen, but they despise him for questioning what they believe to be true and they vow that if ever again one should try to escape from the cave, they will kill him.
The Allegory of the Cave clearly illustrates the lonely and difficult path away from illusion and toward truth. It girds the loins of our students for the hardships they will surely encounter if they are to love the truth and forego the slavish consolations of the herd mind. Great students of philosophy have pointed out that wisdom is esoteric, inaccessible for the many but possible for the few, and so many students will not rise to the challenge. But it is worth the effort for the few, from whom may rise the leaven that will raise the many.
Manhood, womanhood, homosexuality, transgenderism are things that most people had sound opinions about until the day before yesterday. Amazingly, these basic truths have been overthrown with a vengeance, and especially so among the young. It is worth the risk and the effort to open our students’ minds to the truth.