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Jewish World Review August 7, 2000 / 6 Menachem-Av, 5760

Mona Charen

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Consumer Reports

What school texts teach about marriage --
TRUST TEXTBOOK WRITERS to make even the most passionately interesting topics in life -- love, sex and marriage -- as dull as the fishing channel.

That is what the books used in 20 states have accomplished -- according to a study by the New York-based Institute for American Values.

These plodding texts are most often assigned as part of the health curriculum and are usually relied upon by gym teachers who exude discomfort. "Health education" covers everything from drugs to menstruation to sex. In my elementary school, sex ed began as "Family Living." But by the time we reached high school, it had morphed into "Health." Perhaps by the time my cohort reached high school, the educrats had decided that we were all out there "doing it," and therefore, the best they could hope to do was urge caution.

Sex ed didn't get categorized as health by accident. Advocates of sex ed loved to present their opponents as "repressed" or "inhibited" -- two very bad words in the sex-ed dictionary and in the culture generally. As Wendy Shalit writes in her stimulating book "A Return to Modesty," the sex-ed culture has stigmatized as "unhealthy" the most natural maidenly instinct: modesty.

The health/sickness dichotomy works fine for questions like smoking, using seat belts and AIDS prevention (sexual abstinence is strongly encouraged in several texts), but the subjects of love and marriage do not lend themselves to those categories. Love and marriage are not simply matters of the body but of the heart and spirit. And the question of whether it is better for a married couple to stay together or get divorced is a moral one, not a matter of safety or health. Yet trapped within the health paradigm, these texts present marriage in clinical or strictly utilitarian terms. It is an impoverished vocabulary that reflects all too well our diminished capacity for true love and commitment.

Some of the information presented in these widely used textbooks is simply false. "Making Life Choices," for example, states that "almost half a million children die each year at the hands of their abusers." Whoa. Only about 50,000 children under the age of 14 die from any cause on a yearly basis. And the number who are murdered by their parents or guardians is about 1,200 --- a staggering number but hardly the epidemic taught in this leading textbook. That alone might be enough to discourage some teenagers from embracing marriage.

There is no question that the authors of these texts were concerned about not hurting the feelings of readers who are children of divorce. Yet by attempting to put the best face on a terrible situation for these children, the books wind up conveying more false information and more false hope. In "Discover: Decisions for Health," kids read about "Consuelo," who had feared that her parents' divorce meant she was losing one parent. Instead, "her father actually spent more time with her following the divorce." Fine talk.

But the reality is that in the vast majority of divorces, as Barbara DaFoe Whitehead documents in "The Divorce Culture," children get very little time with their fathers post-divorce and less time with their mothers as well. And how do these texts recommend that youngsters prepare themselves for happier married lives than their parents achieved? By encouraging the development of self-esteem. In "Making Life Choices," kids learn that "the most important relationship in your life is the relationship you have with yourself." Another text advises that "to love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance." Yet a third encourages the development of self-esteem by planning "a date to take yourself on -- alone."

Nothing but the obtuse worship of pop psychology prevents these books from recommending more substantive roads to self-esteem, like taking time to volunteer for the Boys and Girls Clubs or helping an elderly relative with her shopping. But then, self-esteem really ought not enter into the discussion at all. The very selfishness these books seem to endorse has been championed by our culture for 30 years -- and accounts, in part, for the excessive divorce rate we suffer.

These textbooks didn't create our problems, but uncorrected, they will help perpetuate them.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate