Bioethicist Live-Tweets Her Son’s Sex-Ed Class (updated)


Alice Dreger, a professor in medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern, sat in on her son’s sex-ed class at East Lansing High School and live-tweeted commentary about it to the world. The tweets were simultaneously disturbing and hilarious.

 

Another commenter, Sam Suarez, adds:

 


Vox has an article on this. Here’s the local paper with a slightly critical take.

(Thanks to Richard Zach for the pointer.)

UPDATE: Professor Dreger has written an article at The Stranger describing the experience.

UPDATE 2: See the comment from Ken, below, whose child, also in the class, confirms Dreger’s account. It begins: “Just to shed some additional light on this, actually my child is one of the students in the class (and I happen to be a Daily Nous reader! Hi!). I don’t know Alice personally, although I do recognize who her son is since our kids have been in school together for years. Her quotes in the tweets are very accurate portrayals of the content of the class much of this week and (according to my kid) might continue into next week.” More here.

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Tyler Hamrick
Tyler Hamrick
6 years ago

Why are there no comments?! I want other philosophers’ takes on this!Report

Another Anon Junior Person
Another Anon Junior Person
6 years ago

My reaction: a substantial portion of sex ed classes ought to be devoted to teaching kids how to think about probabilities.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
6 years ago

My take: it is obnoxious to live tweet your child’s sex ed class. Especially if you are a bioethics professor.

Sure, taken out of context, there is plenty to object to here; the appropriate response to a concern about the curriculum is to discuss this with your child’s instructor before or after the lesson.

Live tweeting strikes me as disrespectful to her child, the other students in the class, and the instructor. Given her field, it also seems classist (look at these backward, sex-negative fools!) and gratuitously self-promoting.Report

Avi
Avi
6 years ago

Hilarious and disturbing. Even so…this is one of the reasons why I ban use of electronic devices in my courses.Report

Another Anon Junior Person
Another Anon Junior Person
6 years ago

Professor Plum, I agree, it’s obnoxious and disrespectful. But obnoxious and disrespectful actions can be permissible, if not required, to combat noxious instruction that is worthy of little respect.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
6 years ago

@ Another Anon Junior Person:

I have no problem with a little incivility from time to time. But if you are going to pour scorn you should make sure innocent bystanders don’t get sprayed. None of the people involved (including her own son!) knew she was live tweeting a discussion they were participating in. The bar for that to be permissible ought to be pretty high.

We don’t actually have any idea what went down in the class. Someone with an axe to grind could live tweet a meeting of your philosophy course and give a highly misleading picture of what you were trying to impart.

Finally, the whole thing comes across as so smug and self-congratulatory that it is difficult for me to take it seriously as protest.Report

Another Anon Junior Person
Another Anon Junior Person
6 years ago

I agree that there are definitely non-trivial privacy issues here (which is maybe what you meant when you said that live tweeting without others knowing sets the permissibility bar high). A sex-ed class is a very intimate space and it would be totally horrifying if a person with the wrong intentions decided to tweet and mock what students asked or said in that setting. And of course, as you say, we don’t know what happened, so we don’t know whether this was a misrepresentation.

Assuming her account was accurate, I guess my hope is that this event, however rude and disrespectful in the short-run, has the more long-run effect of making the kids there aware that there are other points of view on this issue. The classroom lesson, as described, sounds like it could be really sexually shaming for some teenagers. And as the woman who tweeted pointed out, sexual shame can be both hurtful and dangerous. Also, I hope this whole event has an effect on generating more open conversations about balanced sex education classes and making people more aware that this could be happening in their liberal hometown schools.

But I’m a utilitarian, after all.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
6 years ago

Professor Plum, I’m not sure why this seems classist. A very large number of schools where abstinence education is used as sex ed are expensive, private, religious institutions.Report

Jean
Jean
6 years ago

Very amusing tweets, but it sounds to me like “the kid” was perfectly capable of fighting this battle on his own. My own teenagers would have been horrified.Report

Matt
6 years ago

“Sure, taken out of context, there is plenty to object to here”

Also, one suspects, taken in context.

I’m not actually a very big fan of _any_ tweeting, live or otherwise. I think that, with very limited exceptions, it’s mostly a net negative to humanity. But this really does sound like a case where a pretty seriously bad bit of “education” was imposed upon students. I can believe it because of the very similar by of “education” that was imposed upon me years ago. In this case, for anyone who recognizes such things, it’s easy to see that the real evil is the (mis) education, and that the bad of the “tweeting” is a comparative minor thing. Anyone who sees otherwise, I think, is straining at a mote in the eye of their neighbor while ignoring a beam in their own.Report

Bob Kirkman
6 years ago

“. . . the appropriate response to a concern about the curriculum is to discuss this with your child’s instructor before or after the lesson.”

This would be an appropriate response if it were just one instructor in one school doing this. When there are broader policy and cultural issues at stake, a long-term trend toward an approach to sex education based on disinformation and fear, something more dramatic may be called for, something altogether less polite.

I would also point out that, in targeting her posts, Dreger was quite adept at keeping the kids – other than her own kid – out of it, instead holding up the words and actions of the guests to what on the face of it seems to be well-earned ridicule. At no point does she name the guests, the instructor, nor any of the children in the room.Report

Bob Kirkman
6 years ago

And a further thought: How can a system of public education be held accountable to the public it is supposed to serve unless the inner workings of the curriculum are opened up, now and again, to public scrutiny? With something as fraught and as hedged about with shame and secrecy as sex education tends to be, in the U.S., that opening-up of the curriculum might necessarily have to be rude.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
6 years ago

@ Katherine Pogin: I think Dreger’s tweets and essay are classist not because she is criticizing abstinence based education, but because of how she went about this project. I think it is classist for a college professor to invite herself into a high school classroom and then publicly mock those who are teaching the professor’s subject area of expertise without even bothering to tell the targets (or others in the class) what she is doing. Dreger makes several classed -based criticisms of one of the “helpers” (Jerry ) in her son ‘s class. I the essay, she emphasizes over and over Jerry’s apparent non-standard use of English (“the girl ‘showed'”) and dismissed his life story as a “disaster story”, and so on. It all smacks of classism to me.

@ Matt: I can’t parse your comment: if I think Dreger has behaved badly, all things considered, then I’m a hypocrite? How does that follow?

Again, I’m not focused on the content of Dreger’s criticism. Although she doesn’t strike me as a reliable source (she acknowledges that this was one out of several classes the students had on the topic and the school was *not* offering an abstinence-only program, although you likely wouldn’t get that impression from her tweets).

Instead, I object to the cheap publicity that she gained from surreptitiously live tweeting from the classroom, and I think everyone who teaches should be troubled by this. Perhaps in this case you are sympathetic to Dreger, but you may be less sympathetic when someone with different political commitments pulls this sort of stunt. If it becomes a common tactic, it will have a chilling effect on classroom discussion and make it difficult to teach controversial topics.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
6 years ago

Professor Plum, if there is any non-standard use of “showed” that’s being hinted at here, I didn’t catch the hint. I thought the more obvious reading was that it was being used in the very standard sense of that once a woman’s pregnancy is showing, if she is single and unmarried, or especially young, she may face a huge amount of shaming from those around her.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
6 years ago

[email protected] Katherine Pogin, why is ” showed” and “a vegetable” in scare quotes? It is pretty clear to me that she intends to be snide.

I’ve tried, but I guess if you don’t see Dreger’s class-based dismissiveness, I’m not going to be able to convince you. Of course, even if her diatribe is not classist, my point above still stands.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
6 years ago

Professor Plum, in my experience (granted, I am only one person, so I cannot pretend that I have a sense of more general tendencies) shaming women for engaging in sex, for pregnancy, for showing, and so on, more commonly came from those who were wealthy. When I saw “showed” in scare quotes, I assumed it was because the term is sometimes (and in the case described, it seems) used in a derogatory manner.

I take your more general worry about the effects of this approach on our ability to engage in discussion seriously. I’ve been thinking about the broader issue a lot lately (how do we balance approaching disagreement with respect, with kindness, with hope for dialogue, and with understanding, while also refraining from enabling harm to ourselves or third-parties — and I take it this is a case where harm to third parties is a real possibility given the practical importance of sex ed), and I don’t have any decided opinion. I did, though, think your worry about the potential chilling effect on communication was interesting. I’m just surprised by your reading of the class implications because my first (and second) reading went the other way.Report

Matt
6 years ago

if I think Dreger has behaved badly, all things considered, then I’m a hypocrite? How does that follow?

Because you are anonymous, I neither know, nor care, if you’re a hypocrite. (That’s one of the problems of not commenting under your own name. It makes you a cipher w/o any credibility.) But, you did miss my point. The point was, while I’m happy to think that tweeting is often a bad thing in general, worrying about that here was picking at minor issues rather than well-established big ones. Much like worrying about the “tone” of comments, it’s a pointless distraction. Often such things are done to distract from more serious issues. Again, because you’re anonymous, I can’t tell for sure if you’re trying to do that, or if you’re just misguided here. Either way, I think it’s pretty clear that you’re getting things wrong, and focusing on the wrong issues, even if we can agree that, all things considered, we’d be in a better world if twitter had never been invented.Report

Mark van Roojen
6 years ago

I can’t see how discussing one’s own child’s mis-education is a violation of anyone’s privacy or a breach of trust. It’s a breach of trust to spew propaganda to school kids. I read the article. There’s nothing classist in it. This happens at schools of all sorts. It’s not like this is an isolated incident, as opposed to a relatively widespread way in which schools deal with sexuality. It seems completely parallel to the drug education we got from the gym teachers who were tasked with teaching “health” in my day in one of the better funded high schools in Illinois in the mid-1970s. Lots of truthiness and not much truth.Report

Monica
Monica
6 years ago

I would like to point out a more insidious attitude and pattern of reasoning that did not seem to get much air time in the previous comments. One of the persons involved as teachers or invited guests during this sex ed class was simply there in virtue of being now the head of a family with two kids (one of them being a daughter). The story of this person’s previous relationship experiences was meant to make the case for the virtues of abstinence in pre-marital relationships. But it did so by putting emphasis on sex-shaming and slut-shaming his previous partners. As far as I can tell, he insinuates that the early relationships were a failure not only because of contraception failure, but also because his women partners wanted/agreed to have sex, while his now wife rejecting sexual advances was a sign of her being an appropriate partner (and not a slut, presumably). As a parent, I think Alice Dreger should have just stopped the “conversation” at that point. If filling information about which contraceptive method is effective and to what degree in some circumstances is something that can be very easily be done after class- by providing additional data (as her son did)-, stopping this sort of hypocritical and damaging view of women(and not only) as sexual partners is hard to do after the fact. In fact, I think she was better off stopping the speaker from sharing his “wisdom”: after all, there is little to learn from someone who seems to have learnt from his relationships only how to categorize women and how to choose the only one worthy of his respect and loyalty. Because, you know, it is implied that all the others did not deserve such respect, not that *he* was wrong and immature and not knowing how to show that respect and love… *That* is very wrong and it is the sort of attitude that can hardly be changed after the fact. It is also something that sexual education should definitely emphasize.Report

Ken
Ken
6 years ago

Just to shed some additional light on this, actually my child is one of the students in the class (and I happen to be a Daily Nous reader! Hi!). I don’t know Alice personally, although I do recognize who her son is since our kids have been in school together for years.

Her quotes in the tweets are very accurate portrayals of the content of the class much of this week and (according to my kid) might continue into next week. So, although I definitely realize that quotes on controversial topics can easily be taken out of context and misinterpreted, according to my child, at least, that is absolutely not the case here. This is an accurate portrayal of content spanning more than a single day, as well as all of the content of that day. This isn’t cherry picking, it was ALL that bad.

I also want to make very clear that these were outside guest teachers hired by the district to teach this material. (Overall, it’s a great school district and we love it here, which makes this absurdity even more surprising!) It is a half-year health class and sex ed is just one portion of that. It’s my understanding (but I’m still trying to get details) that these guest teachers are the ENTIRE sex ed content. Also, when her son tried to present counter facts (including a page long list of sources) he was interrupted before he could finish and told that those sources were “not Board approved,” “people can say anything on the internet” and the only valid source was the NAEA (National Abstinence Education Association). These outsider guest teachers are associated with Pregnancy Services of Greater Lansing, a local Christian pro-life, “abortion alternative education” clinic. This is the only required sex ed for all of high school. They are required to take the health class at some point during their 4 years, and most opt to take it freshman year to have more flexible schedules later for advanced coursework. (As well as, I’m sure, the usual teenager “get it over with” attitude most of us have had concerning health classes.)

Also, not only parents, but students themselves have complained to administration in the past about this. Hearing from parents of other graduates, it sounds like this might be either a recent development or that different teachers don’t have these horrible guest teachers. I’m still hoping to get more information on this, but students and parents from students who took the class 11, 6, and 2 years ago have said that it used to cover contraceptive use as well and was not as focused on teaching through terror. It used to be far more balanced. As for the complaints, the inherent sexism of “good girls don’t want sex and good boys pick good girls” (as well as the stupidity of “but if girls have sex they WILL get pregnant and become drug addicts”) has been a big point of complaint in particular from the Gender Equality club of the high school. However, from what they have said as well as other parents who complained about the program, all messages are ignored and never returned.

Oh, and the other articles mention it, but I don’t think it’s been mentioned here. But Alice remained quiet throughout the class but afterwards in the hallway swore in front of other students. She was then banned from the school except for specific activities with her son during which she will be specially monitored. Actually, when my kid was telling me about how awful this class was, the garbage they are teaching, and how clueless these guest teachers are, oddly enough, I actually said the same obscene word. First time ever swearing in front of my kids and first time I’ve said that word in years, and not my most articulate argument I have ever made. But I certainly don’t blame her for having that reaction after sitting through the class for an hour. Too bad she said it at the school and is now banned. I don’t think you have to be very skeptical to wonder the real reason she was punished.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
6 years ago

@ #21:
I assume this is directed at me since I described Dreger’s tweets as self-promoting. In response, all I can do is shake my head.

The reason why I think this was a self-promoting stunt has nothing to do with Dreger’s gender and everything to do with her message and medium (everyone knows that twitter and self-promotion go together like peanut butter and jelly). As a woman and a feminist, I don’t appreciate my opinions being dismissed as sexist simply because I challenge what some regard as liberal feminist orthodoxy.Report