Family-life courses need religious touch

Sunday, October 4, 1998

Religions have much to say about marriage and sexuality. But not a word of it can be found in the health textbooks used in public high schools.

According to a report just released by the Council on Families, high school students are taught about family, sex, abstinence, marriage, parenting, and divorce with no mention of how various religious traditions address any of those topics.

But surely that's both unfair under the First Amendment and a poor way to educate young people.

Of course, not everyone agrees that public schools should be dealing with sex and family issues in the first place. But if they do, then they must make sure that students hear the different voices — secular and religious — that are a part of our cultural conversation.

The news about the health textbooks isn't all bad. The report, written by Professor Paul Vitz of New York University, commends the books for emphasizing the value of marriage, recommending sexual abstinence for teenagers, and discussing the importance of family.

But the report goes on to criticize the poor scholarship and the superficial treatment of family life and marriage that characterize many of the texts. The books say a lot about health, self-actualization, and self-esteem, but very little about the “rich treasure troves of knowledge about love, courtship, marriage, and family life that are readily available from disciplines such as history, anthropology, philosophy, and theology.”

From a First Amendment perspective, the focus on self-esteem is especially troubling. Vitz points out that self-esteem functions like a religion in these texts. “The most important relationship in your life,” says one textbook, “is the relationship you have with yourself.”

Do the books offer any alternative to this “religion of self-esteem”? No. This despite the fact that the ideal of self-esteem as defined in most of these texts contradicts the ideals of most religious traditions. The psychology of self-esteem is only one way to see the human person—one among many ways. It is not, as these textbooks would have it, the only path to self-understanding.

When we disagree about what is most important in life, and when we differ about the nature of the self, human sexuality, birth control and related issues, then the First Amendment calls us to include more than one voice in the curriculum.

This is also about the quality of the education our students are receiving. Given the importance of religion in our culture, to remain ignorant of religious ways of thinking about marriage and sexuality is to remain uneducated. As Vitz puts it: “The radical exclusion of religion from the discussion of love and marriage is a form of educational malpractice.”

What can be done? One of the most intriguing reforms proposed in the report is to get rid of these textbooks altogether. Instead, expose students to the great works of literature, art and scholarship, works that examine a variety of religious as well as non-religious insights into the themes of love and marriage. Now that would be fair under the First Amendment—and educationally sound as well.

Professor Vitz's full report, “The Course of True Love: Marriage in High School Textbooks,” is available from the Institute for American Values in New York City (212-246-3942).