By Rejoice Ngwenya
FOR those of my readers who are not necessarily schooled in matters of political economy but with a keen interest in philosophy, you may have heard about the term ‘liberalism’. If you follow closely international politics you will know that electoral campaigns classify contestations into distinct groups – the most common being ‘conservative’, ‘socialist’, ‘green’, ‘labour’, ‘communist’, ‘republican’ ‘far right’, ‘far left’ and of course, liberal.
Any group a political party chooses to be will determine its economic, education, social, legal, commercial and industrial policies. This is why when Zimbabweans exercise their electoral choice, they are always urged to be discerning so that they elect a group of representatives whose political party offers the best policy alternative. For reasons of choice and good judgement, I myself am part of the liberal family. This has nothing to do with being ‘western oriented’ or ‘captured by foreign ideology’ but simply who I am – liberal.
Liberals world over – and we are millions – take education very seriously. We believe that you can only be enlightened through intense reading, writing and open intellectual dialogue. Greek philosophers sat with their ‘students’ in public spaces discussing critical issues – the beginning of open democracy. As an individual – actually even for governments – one must defend fearlessly their freedom to choose, to associate, to be informed and ultimately to express oneself.
Thus, my Friday obsession with matters of education policy is designed to fan the fires of liberal ideology and enlightenment. A distinguishing character of being liberal is our ability to confront and deal with issues and in this case, the matter of sex education in lower level schools. Sexuality and choice are critical in human development, therefore their study cannot wait ‘until a child is ready’ because readiness is to do with literary perceptions – and these start at primary school.
Sex education is not abhorrent or for perverts. It is not about supporting one form or another of sexual behaviour or orientation. Many a time social fundamentalists and so-called ‘do gooders’ – actually, holier-than-thou do gooders – will scream that sex education promotes behavioural vagrancy in schools. They will quote traditional and religious doctrines how liberal disbursement of sex education promotes child prostitution, teenage pregnancies and abuse. At one time, Zimbabwean – I think including South African – education circles caught fire when policy makers suggested that condoms be distributed in schools. I found this war totally needless because there already is informal ‘peer sex education’ in schools – most of it gleaned off hearsay, magazines, radio, television and of late, social media. So we might as well guard against false teachings by formalising correct sex education.
A more enlightened approach in school is not so much of ‘how to’ but ‘what not to’ and the consequences of doing. Our bodies evolve all the time and this evolution is most tangible at an early age. I have always wondered why the British system of education conceived the idea of separating girls from boys. As a liberal, I am convinced co-education – not ‘girls schools’ or ‘boys school’ – is a great opportunity for children to appreciate one another’s behaviour under a controlled environment. After all, back home in open society, boys and girls grow up under one roof. Nevertheless, of course we liberals have to confront the issue of sexual behaviour and choice being part of this ‘disruptive’ policy thrust.
I say this because liberals world over have taken a strong position around matters of abortion, same sex marriage, gay and lesbianism. By ‘strong position’, I do not mean ‘agreeing with’ or ‘justification’. This term is a euphemism of what you can term ‘tolerance’ – not even indifference or ambivalence. Remember what I said earlier on – that liberals strongly believe in individual choice. We also believe that a government or policy is only ‘good’ where it protects this choice. Use of moral rulers and judgment are common in the social, traditional and religious realm. Again, if children are being taught matters of religion, they will be confronted with hundreds of cases of ‘sexual behaviour’ in the Bible, so it would not be anything new.
If you grow up knowing – actually, if you are taught – that as individuals, we have a right to make choices and that these choices must be respected – you become a more constructive member of the society. Yes, primary school children may encounter studies on the human anatomy in biology lessons at a later stage in life. However, for most, it is good that they know at an early age how sexuality shapes human behaviour – some of it with negative societal consequences e.g. teenage pregnancy, child marriage and abuse. Abortion, same sex marriage, gay and lesbianism falls squarely under this class of ‘individual choice’. Fine, its ‘goodness’ or for want of a better term, ‘badness’ depends on what level the society operates on the ‘moral ruler’, yet issues of morality again, especially their judgement, tend to be subjective.
My point from an education policy perspective is not about a curriculum that says it is good or bad to do this and that. The conventional liberal approach is focusing on dispensing knowledge about consequences of individual choice – also learning to respect each other’s individual choices. More often than not African tradition and culture becomes obsessed with matters taboo rather than rational meaning. The ‘great aunt’ and ‘great uncle’ teaching approach around the traditional fireplace is dead and buried. Our children need to know and need to know as of yesterday.
There is no point in being paranoid about condoms, abortion, same sex marriage, gay and lesbianism because these are now ‘in our face’ facts. We have to deal with them in early education to reduce the ‘shock effects’ at a later stage of our children’s lives. If our policy makers choose the ‘moral ruler’ or ‘holier-than-thou’ approach, we are breeding fertile ground for future conflict, because it is our children who will now be teaching us what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. That will not be palatable.