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What’s love got to do with sex ed? Maybe everything

C.S.I. Jenkins is the Canada Research Chair in Philosophy at the University of British Columbia, and is writing a book on the nature of romantic love.

Ontario schools are introducing a new sex ed curriculum this September, one that covers topics such as sexting and consent as opposed to merely the mechanics of sex. Predictably, some parents are vocally outraged.

But among the voices in what's been called a "coalition of the pure," some are more interesting than others. Recently The Globe and Mail reported that Michal Szczech, a father of two, is not dismayed by what appears on the new curriculum but by what is missing from it. Szczech is said to be calling for classes that will cover not just sex, but love.

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Now that's not a bad idea. There's just one huge snag: What do you teach?

With sex we can at least teach the mechanics, even if things get more controversial thereafter. But when it comes to love, we don't even have a basic grasp of the mechanics. Actually, we don't even know if there are any mechanics. The gaps in our understanding of love are mind-boggling.

Even on the most fundamental question – "What is love?" – we have nothing resembling a consensus. Is love a social construct, or something in our biology, or something else altogether – something spiritual or supernatural perhaps? Are people genetically hardwired to fall in love when they do, or is it the result of conditioning or divine intervention or what? "Experts" can be found defending each of these answers (and a panoply of others besides).

In short, "What is love?" is one of the great philosophical questions of all time, not something you can expect to see easily answered on a standardized test or a homework assignment.

But then again, sometimes the best education is not simply a matter of dispensing facts. Sometimes what really matters is the invitation to think for oneself. With love, like with any great philosophical topic, there is actually a lot we can do for the next generation. We can provide good critical thinking skills, and a sense of the breadth and depth of views and opinions on offer. Then we can send young people on their own journeys of discovery, well-prepared and well-equipped.

When it comes to love, that is what I would recommend adding to the curriculum. This is just to say that we should teach love as a philosophical topic. In fact, in seeking to add love to the curriculum, Szczech is harking back to Socratic teachings, which placed the proper understanding of love (in all its forms) at their very core. And he has an unlikely ally in Bertrand Russell, a renowned 20th-century philosopher and mathematical logician whose controversial private life and social opinions rarely earned him the label "pure."

In 1929 (for context, that's 35 years before Dan Savage was even born), Mr. Russell published a book called Marriage and Morals in which he advocated what was then called "free love," and what we might now call "monogamish" marriages. But Mr. Russell wasn't proposing random or thoughtless sex. In fact, he considered sex without love to be of "little value." He wanted all young people to get a comprehensive sex education precisely because he thought it would reduce clandestine and unhealthy sexual activity, and lead to more and better-quality loving relationships. He also thought it was crucial for people to be able to recognize the difference between love and mere sexual desire – at least before getting married – to avert disaster.

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So while Mr. Russell himself didn't explicitly recommend putting love on anyone's syllabus, the idea of doing so is actually the natural upshot of his combination of sex-positive yet love-oriented views, especially taken together with his emphasis on openness and honesty with young people. Anyone with similar opinions might agree, whether or not they would otherwise consider themselves aligned with "the pure."

That's because putting love on school curriculums is actually a great idea. And like many great ideas, it straddles ideological divides.

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