Kellogs Corn Flakes_thumbSince I first posted about the idea of hard lessons to teach, I have been looking for occasions to put theory into practice. Not wanting to fall foul of the school, I have gone through various official channels to find a venue for these messages. Having failed to find fertile soil, I have recently been casting around for ways to build the lessons into to an existing course, class or time.

So, when I came across this article on Victorian attitudes to sex and masturbation, I was sure I had an in. The article is in fact perfect, as it ties my desire to be more honest and open with students (hence the 12 Hard Lessons) with a need to help students understand how much the world has changed. In the article we see not only changing attitudes to sex and sexuality, but also progress in science, treatment of children and much more.

Although my students did not read the article directly, I shared with them some of the barbaric treatment dished out to children in the name of medicine. Upon hearing about children having their genitals disfigured with burning hot pokers, the students have no choice but to react. I also shared with them some of the old names for masturbation, which again drove home how much times have changed:

  • The Solitary Vice
  • Self Abuse
  • The Vicious Habit

In researching further, I came across an article with yet more fascinating information. One point in particular struck me as the perfect way to introduce the topic to students: Corn Flakes were originally designed to curb sexual appetite and prevent masturbation. This was news to me, and completely out of the blue. The story goes that they were devised by Dr. John Kellog, as a result of his research into nutrition and sexual appetite. Supposedly the combination of high fibre and mild flavour lead to lower libido. Kellog was not alone in this aim, and was actually following in the footsteps of the Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham, inventor of the Graham Cracker. According to Graham’s teachings:

“All kinds of stimulating and heating substances; high-seasoned food; rich dishes; the free use of flesh; and even the excess of aliment; all, more or less — and some to a very great degree — increase the concupiscent excitability and sensibility of the genital organs…” — Sylvester Graham

So, this morning a time slot presented itself in which I felt I could put all of this into action: a 15 minute pastoral slot with some Year 9 students who I know well. In approaching this I really wanted to surprise the students, so I chose to put an image of Kellog’s cornflakes box on the screen and ask the group to think something unexpectedly connected to corn flakes. They struggled. When I wrote “masturbation” on the board they were stunned…until someone broke the silence with a giggle. Suddenly I had their very fickle attention At this point I explained that as a teacher I really want to treat them in a more adult fashion, hopefully leading to an adult-adult relationship in the Transactional Analysis sense (TA is something we use a lot in school, and I have worked with them on this before). I speculated that, being somewhere between childhood and adulthood, they probably find themselves treated as children more often than they would like. This time, then, would be an experiment in changing that state of affairs. I was clear that I wanted to give them opportunities to discuss things they might not usually get to discuss with a knowing other. I assured them that if they were uncomfortable we could stop the conversation. We then dug into the history of Victorian attitudes to masturbation, supposed “cures” and why people were so upset by it all.

Although the time was short, we managed to discuss some interesting points. The students were stunned by some of the anti-masturbation devices I showed them, such as the two below:

Anti-Masturbation Devices

In the end, I asked them to consider how different the world is today. The word “liberal” was mentioned by one student. I tried to tie this change in our societies back to a growth in logical, scientific understanding vs a decrease in traditional dogma and superstition. Given more time I would loved to have looked at some existing traditional societies where attitudes are largely traditional.

To be honest it took a certain level of bravery to deliver this content in this context. Had I been a science teacher with a biology class I would have been fine. The reason for this is nothing to do with my own feelings, but rather stems from the act of pushing back against so much of what school and society tells us to do. I have delayed starting this course of direct action, making sure to check the lay of the land. However, having started I am now ready to tackle some of life’s other hard lessons.

Credits: Cornflakes Ad, Public Domain. Male Anti-Masturbation Devices by Toby Bradbury on Flickr, CC BY NC ND. Anti-Masturbation Devices, Public Domain.