BOSTON — By the time the strains of the wedding march fill the air, it's a little late for any bride and groom to begin thinking about the long-term implications of those four little words "for better or worse." Yet well-meaning efforts in schools to give teenagers a head start in preparing for marriage still fall short.
Alarmingly short in some cases, it turns out. According to a report being released today by the nonpartisan Institute for American Values in New York, some of the most widely used high school health textbooks place greater emphasis on self-esteem than on marriage, sexuality, and family life. One book gives marriage only seven pages, while allotting 31 pages to self-esteem.
The good news in the report, "The Course of True Love: Marriage in High School Textbooks," is that these books are more accurate and balanced than comparable college texts the Institute studied last year. All treat marriage respectfully, describing it as a serious lifelong commitment. They also emphasize the value of teenage sexual abstinence.
But then there's the bad news. Researchers call the textbooks "intellectually, emotionally, and morally vacuous." Authors, they charge, draw only on perspectives from the fields of popular psychology and medicine. Religion is virtually absent. As the report notes, "In a world in which marriage is widely understood as containing a spiritual dimension, and in a nation in which about 80 percent of all marriages take place in houses of worship, a reader of these books is never given any reason to suspect that a significant relationship might exist between marriage and religion."
In addition, the textbooks ignore growing evidence suggesting that couples who live together before marriage face a greater likelihood of divorce. Perhaps most alarmingly, the authors fail to emphasize the importance of fathers in the family.
Lamenting the "bleak" and "depressing" world view these texts convey to teenagers, the report observes that "it's as if Cupid were confused or sleeping.... Most of the big, interesting words - mystery, romance, love, flirtation, jealousy, courtship, passion - are simply left unexamined, as if they were not relevant, replaced by smaller and ultimately sadder words such as dysfunction, self-esteem, responsibility, stress, coping, disease, and most of all, health."
If ever any generation needed guidance, reassurance, and honest discussions about marriage before walking down the aisle, it's today's teenagers, many of whom, as children of the divorce revolution, wonder about their own prospects for a loving, lasting marriage. Yet learning about marriage and family by the book will always have its limits, no matter how expansive and well-written a book - or textbook - might be.
For that reason, researchers at the Institute make a modest proposal: Perhaps, they suggest, a better solution would be to abandon these marriage textbooks, focusing instead on great literature and art, turning to novelists, poets, painters, philosophers, and great thinkers who examine themes of love and marriage.
Since that idea may be too radical for now, they also recommend rewriting current health textbooks to improve the intellectual content and include religious perspectives.
Whether schools should even teach marriage education remains a controversial subject. Yet a good class, well-taught by a caring, informed teacher, can certainly add to students' understanding of long-term commitment, fidelity, and stable, loving families. At the very least such classes can, with or without textbooks, focus on questions that lie at the heart of teenagers' concerns and interests, such as: What makes a good marriage? What are the characteristics of a loving wife or husband? Is lasting love possible? How do I know when I'm in love? And how do I know whether to trust a guy?
Cupid - and students - would surely approve.