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Whatever Happened to the Romance in Life?

Education: Family values should be taught throughout the curriculum, not just in health.

September 24, 1998|DANA MACK | Dana Mack, an affiliate scholar with the Institute for American Values, a New York-based family and social policy research organization, is the author of "The Assault on Parenthood: How Our Culture Undermines the Family" (Simon & Schuster, 1997)

Whatever happened to romance? That's the question asked in "The Course of True Love," a new report on family life education in American high schools. Written by New York University's Paul Vitz for the Council on Families in America, the report examines six widely used and recently published American health texts for what they teach young people about sex, love and marriage.

Vitz's findings are in many ways heartening: Faced with the social costs of family fragmentation, he writes, and with growing adolescent behavioral problems, many public schools today are taking a significantly more assertive role in seeking to shape young people' basic values.

Health texts are passing on unmistakable messages to young people regarding the benefits of teenage sexual abstinence, the seriousness of the marriage commitment, the drawbacks of single parenting and the importance of family to the individual's well-being.

In their concern to offer sound counsel to young people with regard to their futures, health texts happily mirror the values of the larger community, supporting parents in their efforts to raise responsible and self-reliant citizens. Unfortunately, however, they are neither intellectually absorbing nor morally inspiring.

Strong on proscription, short on information and marred by factual errors, they fail the test of good scholarship. Because they take a superficial approach to the most vital and complex themes of life, they are unable to convincingly ground the social values they so urgently seek to pass onto teens.

Part of the problem is that these textbooks are trapped in the limited paradigm of health education. This leaves them unable to support their good advice by drawing from the vast stores of knowledge about marriage and family gathered outside the counseling, psychology and medical fields. To really learn something about marriage and family life, Vitz says, kids need to be exposed to the fields of cultural anthropology, history, sociology, literature and the visual arts. Yet family life is usually discussed exclusively in health class.

Indeed, high school health texts may run the risk of turning off the very young people they seek to enlighten. In their clinical, austere and hyperrational approach to the subjects of sex, love and family life, and in their general negativism--they tend to focus inordinate attention on psychological dysfunction, on sources of stress and on the need for emotional self-sufficiency in an increasingly atomized society--they cannot fail to depress. Admittedly, they clearly intend to proffer a strong dose of "coping" medicine for young people leading complex, modern lives. Ultimately, however, they proffer a vision of adulthood wrought with obligations and relatively empty of pleasures--a vision without much hope, and still less mystery. Adolescence is a time of aesthetic and spiritual seeking, a time of dreams and of a search for self-transcendence. Yet there is little enough of self-transcendence and guiding ideals in these books, and none of the stuff of dreams, romance and wonderment that are the taste of young hearts and minds.

The treatment of love, marriage and family life found in high school health texts may reflect a larger metamorphosis of American education. Little by little we see the deconstruction of a curriculum based on cultural narratives and ideal forms and its replacement by a curriculum focused on technical information and therapeutic advice. A look at any public high school course offerings will betray this change. How many understand the all-consuming fire that eternally unites Romeo and Juliet? How many have grappled with the ruinous passion of Anna Karenina or the desperate anger of the castoff Medea? How many have heard the names Desdemona or Psyche and are familiar with the trials and the sacrifices they endure for love?

For all their good intentions, it appears that health textbooks fail to offer the restive adolescent imagination what it yearns for far more than lessons in physical and mental hygiene: an intellectual and emotional awakening to the awesome power and the manifold possibilities of love.

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