October 14, 1998 New York Times

Debate Over Marriage Education for High-School Students


As conservatives and liberals alike have come to agree on the
importance of marriage and the need to strengthen families, a
growing number of high schools across the country are requiring
students to undergo marriage education.

On Jan. 1, Florida will become the first state to require all public
high schools to teach marriage and relationship skills, such as how
to resolve conflicts. In other states, hundreds of individual schools
and school districts are adding classes -- some a semester long,
some a two-week unit within another course -- to teach students
the skills to make marriage work and avoid divorce.

The movement to teach relationship skills, however, is only part of a
growing debate over what, and where, American children should be
taught about love and marriage.

Given the nation's high divorce rates, some educators and social policy
analysts say, schools have an obligation to help students think not only
about relationships, but also about the role that marriage has played in
history and the deeper human issues of love, intimacy and commitment.

But there is no consensus on what should be taught: some see the
courses as an introduction to premarital counseling, while others want
character education or teaching on divorce law.

Others question the whole concept of marriage education in the schools,
arguing that it is an area best left to churches and community groups and
reserved for adults in a relationship -- not high-school students working
through a crowded curriculum that too often fails to cover basic academic skills.

"We have schools that can't teach reading, writing and arithmetic," said
Midge Decter, the conservative writer. "The idea that schools should even
be touching this chills my blood."

Advocates of the programs believe they can teach young people how
to avoid divorce.

"This isn't rocket science; it's more like driver's ed," said Diane
Sollee, whose experience as a marriage counselor led her to found the
Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, a group that
promotes schools' teaching of marriage skills. "It's about teaching
kids the basic communication skills they need for a healthy marriage.

"People in marriages that succeed fight about all the same things as
people in marriages that fail," she said. "The research shows that
what distinguishes them is how they handle their disagreements. That's a
skill we can teach."

Because the marriage-skills programs are so new, there is no research on
whether they actually prevent divorce.

But some students seem to feel that they fill a need.

In Philadelphia, 19 students at Martin Luther King High School, mostly
seniors, enrolled in this semester's elective marriage-skills
class, which is based on a curriculum developed by the family law section
of the American Bar Association and is now in use in more
than 400 schools. Only four lived with two married parents, and most said
they hoped the course -- alternating discussion of divorce law
and domestic violence with exercises in budgeting and conflict resolution
-- would help them avoid their parents' mistakes.

"My parents broke up when I was 2," said Marcus Wright, an 18-year old
senior in the class, which is sponsored by, and mostly taught
at, Wolf, Block, Schorr & Solis-Cohen, a local law firm. "I'm taking this
course because I want to get married, and I don't want to
break up."

Currently, most high schools discuss marriage as one part of a health or
"life skills" class giving practical information on everything
from nutrition and balancing a checkbook to AIDS prevention and first

Many districts have chosen the health model as the best way to avoid
controversy in an era when teaching about sexuality or values can
cause school-board headaches.

"The left is afraid that schools are going to be used for religious
indoctrination, and the right is afraid they'll push liberal views, so
public-school textbooks describe everything as if it's plumbing, which
makes it safe, but doesn't help the children," said Amitai Etzioni,
a professor at George Washington University who writes frequently on the
need for moral education.

It is not yet clear just what will be in the curriculum in Florida, where
it was a liberal Democrat, state Rep. Elaine Bloom, who pushed
the legislation requiring marriage-skills education, with backing from
some conservative groups, including the local Christian Coalition.
Nationally, though, many conservatives say that home, church and
community organizations are the places to talk about marriage, not
the public schools.

Last month, the Institute for American Values, a nonpartisan group
concerned with family issues, issued a study critical of the most
commonly used textbooks. The study analyzed the six textbooks, published
from 1993 to 1997 and used in the 20 states that have
adopted specific health texts, and concluded that they generally avoided
discussion of love, religion, commitment, values and
spirituality, and focused strongly on self-esteem and self-actualization.

"Most of the big, interesting words -- mystery, romance, love flirtation,
jealousy, courtship, passion -- are simply left unexamined, as if
they were not relevant," the report stated, "replaced instead by smaller
and ultimately sadder words such as dysfunction, self-esteem,
responsibility, stress, coping, disease, and, most of all, health."

It questioned whether marriage was appropriately a chapter sandwiched
between "Mental Disorders and Suicide" and "Digestion and

"The textbooks emphasize the health-benefit aspect, as if the question
about marriage is, what am I going to get for it," said Paul Vitz of
New York University, the author of the report. "That me-generation
psychology is incompatible with successful marriages and families,
which require love and self-sacrifice."

His report quoted one of the texts that says, "The most important
relationship in your life is the relationship you have with yourself,"
and another that has 31 pages on self-esteem and seven on marriage.

The Institute for American Values report included three recommendations
for improving marriage education: use examples from literature
and art, shift the emphasis from health to character, and, if health
textbooks are to be used, make sure they recognize the religious and
sociological perspectives on marriage, and incorporate material from
marriage-skills research.

Some see the textbooks as a sign of the times, a reflection of how sexual
liberation has been accompanied by an odd revaluing, in which
graphic sexual talk has become a staple of public affairs while intense
emotions have come to be seen as unseemly.

"The Victorians could not discuss the shape of a piano leg without
blushing, but they could describe fervent, almost religious, passion
for a friend," said Kay S. Hymowitz, a contributing writer to the
conservative Manhattan Institute. "Now, we talk with strangers about
pubic hair, but if we talk about love, we turn red with shame. The idea
of belonging to someone else threatens contemporary values,
which have to do with being tough, being independent.

"It's hard to say where kids would learn the cultural construct of
romantic love," she said. "It's not in the school curriculum. It's not in
rap music. On many campuses, there is no such thing as dating anymore.
And when parents talk about what they say to their
adolescents, you hear about responsibility, about saying what you mean,
but you never hear about love."

Most of the new marriage-education programs now trickling into high
schools still tend to focus on practical skills like conflict
resolution, but one popular program, "The Art of Loving Well," developed
at Boston University, uses an anthology of literary selections
to spur discussion of love, loss, romance, commitment and marriage.

In "Connections," a 15-lesson curriculum now used in several hundred
schools, mostly in California, students choose a partner for a
pretend marriage, and meet for seven days to divide household duties,
plan a wedding, make career choices, create a budget, plan a
family vacation and face a randomly-assigned crisis, like being dismissed
from a job.

"The game comes after they've gone through lessons on understanding
themselves, relationships, and communications, and they really
get a chance to work through problems," said Kay Reed, of the Berkeley,
Calif., Dibble Fund, created by a philanthropist concerned
about divorce rates, which distributes the curriculum.

"Some people choose a boyfriend or girlfriend to work with, some people a
friend of the same sex," she said. "In one class, after the
quarterback on the football team chose a girl as his partner, the girl,
who wasn't in the class, came in to tell the teacher she would never
even think about marrying him because he just didn't listen to her."

The idea of teaching relationship skills in high school has trickled down
from the adult world in the last few years, as educators,
therapists, divorce lawyers, family court judges and legislators have
become familiar with adult marriage-skills courses. Since several
states have rejected legislation to require skills counseling for
everyone married, some supporters of marriage education now see the
high schools as an easier place to spread the word.

"Let's face it, this is America, and we're not going to force people into
counseling," said Ms. Sollee. "In high school, it's clearer that
this isn't therapy, it's learning skills."

And in Florida, at least, the high-school curriculum is only part of a
larger marriage-skills effort, including a discount on marriage
licenses for couples that take a four-hour skills course.

"Our legislation is about skills that will help children in all their
relationships: with their parents, their peers, their brothers and
and ultimately with choosing and staying with their mate," said
Representative Bloom.

But even some proponents of marriage-skills courses for adults question
whether they belong in high school.

"There are plenty of community settings or religious settings for
learning relationship skills," said Howard Markman, of the University
of Denver's Center for Marital and Family Studies, who teaches adult
marriage-skills courses. "I think relationship skills need to be
developed in the context of the relationship, and trying to reach kids in
schools may be too early."

An exchange last month at a New York City symposium sponsored by the
Institute for American Values encapsulated the debate over the
schools' role: "A lot of these kids don't know who Abraham Lincoln is,"
said Ms. Decter, arguing for a traditional academic curriculum.

"They don't need to know who Abraham Lincoln is to stay married,"
retorted Ms. Sollee.

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