Is absinthe-only education really more effective than abstinence?

On last night’s The Nightly Show, Larry Wilmore suggested that abstinence-only education is even less effective than “absinthe-only education”, which, fine. They sound similar: I get it.

But having tried absinthe, I found myself skeptical of his claim and naturally inclined to provide some sort of further evaluation — to, you know, see if there’s more to the link between absinthe and abstinence than originally meets the eye [see above]. To this end, I needed one thing: more information.

Unfortunately, Wilmore’s proposed curriculum (which accompanied his joke as a sketch on-screen) was thoroughly unenlightening:

Wilmore absinthe

Where to start? In a vacuum, discouraging the consumption of “beer before absinthe” could indeed be considered a form of “absinthe-only education”. Yes absinthe, no beer. Simple rule: Absinthe only, as promised.

But the words written in chalk quite plainly tell, at most, half the story: What about beer after absinthe? If we’re to take “absinthe-only education” seriously, it too should be verboten. Yet following the formula on which Wilmore’s joke is based, you get “Absinthe before beer, in-sinthe the clear”. That sentence lacks any sort of plain meaning, which absence I took as a challenge.

So let’s see if we can make some sense of it. More specifically, let’s give a couple of promising sentence fragments (fiddling with punctuation produces “beer in-sinthe” and “‘sinthe, the clear”) a shot (pun intended). “Beer in-sinthe” is actually a thing that exists, and “‘sinthe, the clear” happens to be what classically-green absinthe looks like in its original state (it emerges that way from the still, before a concoction of herbs tinges it green, and is sometimes even sold in that virginal state). So there’s a glimmer of logic in there. Perhaps deeper contemplation can clue us in?

Alas, I was unable to distill any greater meaning from either reading. So far’s I can tell, both suffer from the common defect that consuming beer in connection with absinthe inherently undermines the concept of “absinthe-only education”. Moreover, the first reading, which calls for mixing — presumably, simultaneous — blatantly contradicts the directionality of the aphorism (“absinthe before beer”). And the second fails to provide a compelling rationale for how consuming beer might affect one’s clarity upon later consuming absinthe.

In case you managed to stick with me through roughly 350 words of speculative nonsense, you learned that Wilmore’s proposed curricular changes raise more questions than they answer. And while that might seem frustrating and confusing — why are you still with me?? — that’s actually one mark of a good education: providing students with limited information can train them to think critically, and develop a sense of wonder about the world around them.

But it’s not enough to just make students wonder. Sometimes you have to give them answers. Emphasis on plural. When there’s only one answer to every question (“If kids are not having any sexual activity, they can’t get this disease . . . That’s not a bad program.”) that’s a school program undeserving of the name “education”.


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