In my sophomore year of high school, my school decided to outsource its sex education program. It brought in an organization with a clear, singular mission to offer a comprehensive, honest and holistic approach to sex ed grounded in the reality of 21st century teenagerhood. Our teacher normalized the visceral awkwardness of puberty and made it easy to talk about anything.
We covered the normal logistical topics of anatomy, safe sex and sexually transmitted diseases, but we also talked about toxic relationships, how to have healthy communication and why it is important, virginity as a social construct and, generally, how hard puberty is.
This kind of sex ed is rare because by and large, it seems like the philosophy of our U.S. education system is to leave character development to the family because the alternative is too politically controversial.
However, it also seems like kids are not doing well in this system. Depression and anxiety rates are climbing. Teens have reported having higher levels of stress than adults since 2013. Social media is encouraging us to put more stock in others’ opinions of us than our own. Gen Zers, compared with millennials, Gen Xers, baby boomers and older, are the least likely to be mentally healthy.
These are signs of a systemic problem, and our schools need to take accountability for the character and well-being of their students. The education system isn’t a neutral body. Students spend a lot of their time at school, and it’s not always fair to assume that every child is getting robust and comprehensive lessons in character at their homes — that mentality makes the naive assumption that all students have a positive home life. In reality, lots of kids might feel unsafe or unprotected in their own homes. Some students’ parents have to deal with financial or housing instability, some are juggling several jobs and some just don’t have the capacity to spearhead a sort of “character curriculum” for their kids.
But imagine a system that, like my sex ed class in high school, puts the well-being of the child before any of their test scores. Knowing how to communicate your emotions and feelings and desires is much more important in the long run than knowing how to use the quadratic formula. A human-centered approach to education will produce kids that are better at empathizing and maturely navigating conflict. Kids with these skills become young adults who understand consent and who lower the alarmingly high rates of sexual assault both on and off college campuses. Those young adults will then become parents who are better equipped to raise empathetic, well-rounded, mentally healthy kids.
Systems often perpetuate themselves, but they can be interrupted. The system that is creating these alarmingly high levels of stress in students is worth interrupting because right now, it’s costing us our health, our happiness and our potential.
Humans exist socially. Our social relationships, and our ability to connect and find and create communities, are what drive us and fulfill us. Plain and simple, it’s absurd to neglect our social development in our institutions of education. We could have better. We deserve a human-centric, empathy-driven, socially focused educational experience because out of that will come a healthier, happier and more connected culture… and who doesn’t want that?