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Beyond sex-ed: Teaching the dignity of the human person in the classroom



Daniel Esparza - published on 09/22/17

Aleteia interviews Anna Halpine, the founder of the World Youth Alliance, about their latest classroom initiative.
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The World Youth Alliance was born in 1999, initially as an answer to a proposal then presented at the United Nations by a group of 32 speakers who claimed to be representing the three billion young people in the world. These 32 young speakers demanded that the UN, in the context of the 1999 Conference on Population and Development, enforce three specific policies they considered fundamental for development: considering abortion as a human right, enforcing sexual rights for children and the deletion of parental rights.

Anna Halpine, who was attending the conference, returned the next morning to explain that development cannot be thought of properly if reduced to sexual faculties. Instead, she presented a different image of both the idea of development and of the human person: “the development of the whole person,” Halpine then explained, “includes the moral, spiritual, emotional, intellectual as well as the physical dimensions.”

From 1999 to 2009, Halpine served as the president of the World Youth Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to the defense of the dignity of the whole human person through education, culture and advocacy, which today has offices in six different countries around the world. Their most recent initiative is the Human Dignity Curriculum (HDC), for grades K-8 (ages 4 to 12). The curriculum is intended to develop a sense of personal identity in young people, rooted in an understanding of their dignity as human beings. Aleteia had the opportunity to interview Halpine on the occasion of the launch of the HDC last month in New York City.

HDC’s new model promotes – I quote – a “lifetime healthy integration of sexuality.” This lifetime integration – for good or worse – begins, we could say, at birth, as gender is more and more understood as a somewhat arbitrary assignment and not as an ontological condition determined by genitalia. How is this integration promoted?

HDC focuses on the anthropology of the human person – understanding who we are. At young ages, this is focused on understanding the special value and worth of every person. As the child develops, the content addresses human freedom, understanding the person as a subject and not an object, and choices necessary for human flourishing.

Beginning at age 10, the HDC has a linked-in module for sexual education. This teaches young people the biological realities of their bodies. The link between physiology, hormones, and their emotions and health is made clear. Who they are is linked to how they are built. This gives them an anthropological framework for answering questions about who they are, and a scientific framework for understanding how their biology influences every cell and body development and function, starting when they are in utero. The result is an integration between the body and intellect, and an understanding that their choices create the person that they are and wish to become.

The WHO Europe (World Health Organization), HDC explains on its information booklet, promotes the teaching of a series of concepts and issues that might not be considered suitable for children by many (early masturbation and STIs, for instance). How do you think this became the standard for sexual health education? Is it just a symptomatic “treatment,” let’s say, if we keep on understanding sexuality as a health issue rather than as a holistic one?

The history of how the WHO has arrived at their standards is a long one. For the purposes of the HDC, what is important to realize is that these are the standards that are influencing or leading to the development of sexual education standards in schools across Europe (and in the rest of the world). HDC is developed to meet those standards, though often in a very new way, in order to provide a new approach to the education of the human person and human sexuality. Essentially, the HDC recognizes that we need to establish a very clear understanding of the human person in order to then have a basis for discussing human sexuality.

What other kinds of identity issues does HDC’s model touch on, as related to sexuality, aside from gender identity? I’m asking because you emphasize character formation on your curriculum.

The HDC focuses on each of these themes in every grade: human dignity, human freedom, the person as subject and not object, and building the habits for human excellence. This provides a strong and integrated idea of who they are for the children – enabling them to begin to answer the question “who am I.” Research indicates that a strong personal identity is critical for healthy decision-making and success in personal, academic, and professional life. The HDC invests heavily in this as the foundation on which it then addresses questions of human sexuality and personal choice at age-appropriate times.

As one goes through the key elements of the HDC’s curriculum for K-12 one sees you incorporate “the hierarchy of living beings” and their “powers.” This strikes me as quite an Aristotelian move, let’s say. Would you say you’re tangentially – or straightforwardly – including classic formation in your curriculum?

Aristotle would recognize this approach. It is focused on providing clear structures and classifications for children, so that they can understand essential differences between themselves and other beings. This is necessary to answer the question “how are we similar,” and also “how are we different?” Our experience is that children are eager to understand this and looking for a clear way to know their own experiences and the world around them. The HDC believes that children can know, that they can learn to understand and categorize the empirical data they identify, and that from there they can begin to better understand who they are and their place in the world. The HDC embraces a lot of modern educational commitments, such as learning by using all the senses, application of concepts to personal situations, group and deductive exercises. A classical educator might object that these are all ways of education in a classical format as well! We have tried to listen to parents, teachers, educators and students in developing a curriculum that we think is effective in communicating essential, foundational ideas.

Besides New York and Mexico, what other cities are you considering expanding the HDC to?

Pilot programs for the HDC took place in New York City, Mexico City, and Saint Lucia in the Caribbean. Now that the program is freely available we are already expanding our locations. In the United States the program will be taught in New York City, Minneapolis and Orange County this coming school year; internationally it will be taught in schools in Croatia, Malta, and Manila. We are currently exploring a number of additional partnerships which we look forward to releasing for the 2018-2019 school year.

What does HDC ground its understanding of human dignity on? Is it a transcendental understanding of the human being? Is it more grounded on human rights? The curriculum seems to be strictly secular (hence, applicable to any school, regardless of its affiliation). Was that something you were looking for from the get-go?

The HDC is a secular curriculum. It is rooted in philosophical ideas of the human person, and ideas that are rooted in our experience, great minds, and the human rights tradition. The HDC is also very open to the transcendent, recognizing the important reality of this in the nature of the human person, and the contributions to the understanding and defense of human dignity (to say nothing of the human rights project) from religious institutions. We feel that it is a curriculum that can be taught without religion as well as with religion. We are eager to work with schools and partners to develop both models.

Even though the HDC seems to be more focused on an integral formation of the human persona, you are nevertheless obviously aware of the costs of more “concrete,” immediate concerns related to what has been traditionally understood as “sexual health”: the STD pandemic in the US –it’s not an exaggeration to call it that, if we look at the numbers shared by the US CDC – for instance, is a clear example. How does the curriculum deal with these particular issues?

The HDC as its own program is pure anthropology, or human formation. We are preparing to release our sexual education module, which links seamlessly and meets state requirements for sex ed. This module is being developed in partnership with FEMM, and is called teenFEMM. It builds on human development in the HDC, and then presents the science and biology of the human person. Our experience, building on research, shows that it is the anthropology – or the commitment of the child to who he is and who he wants to be – that drives the behaviors and decisions that they make. In other words, it is the anthropology that does the work in effective good and better outcomes in sexual decision making. This is an exciting result that will benefit from further research and investigation. But it is also clear that children need information – tailored to their age and needs – that helps them to understand and navigate their changing bodies, and new experiences and decisions relating to their human sexuality. TeenFEMM and teenMEN will be our program link to provide that content.

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