LONDON — Wedding bells and vows of "I do" bear little connection to the three R's of a typical school curriculum. But starting next September, teachers in Britain will be required to spend time extolling the benefits of marriage to their classes. Even students as young as 7 will learn about the importance of family life and loving relationships.
Defending the curriculum revisions announced this month, Prime Minister Tony Blair explains that Britain needs "a new sense of moral purpose for today's young generation." He calls it "morally wrong" for government to be indifferent to problems of family instability and unwed teenage pregnancy. Schools, he adds, are not "value-free zones."
Government officials insist they are not dictating behavior but merely offering guidelines for stable relationships. Yet critics, including teachers' unions and an organization of single parents, complain that promoting marriage in schools risks stigmatizing the one-third of British children born out of wedlock and the one-quarter who are growing up in single-parent homes.
Some opponents accuse the government of "moral preaching." Others view lifelong marriage as increasingly irrelevant in an age of cohabitation and greater longevity.
Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education in Washington, opposes that kind of casual, anything-goes approach to relationships. "It is wrong and misleading to tell kids that all family forms are equally beneficial," she says. "It's wrong not to give them information about the benefits of certain family forms over others."
While she applauds Britain's curriculum on marriage, Ms. Sollee would like to see its focus extended. Simply telling students about the benefits of staying married isn't enough, she says. They also need skill training on how to make it work. Last year Florida became the first state to require that marriage skills be taught in all public and private high schools. Other states are considering similar legislation.
Marriage is getting another boost in a report being released today by the nonpartisan Institute for American Values in New York. The study, "The Age of Unwed Mothers," concludes that what is termed a teen pregnancy "crisis" in the United States is not really about teenagers or pregnancy. Rather, it is about the decline of marriage.
Maggie Gallagher, director of the institute's Marriage Project, points out that the number of young women who have their first child during their teen years is about the same today as it was in the early 1970s. The single biggest change in recent decades, she explains, has been the declining proportion of pregnant single teens who marry.
Today the majority of unwed births in the US are to adult women in their 20s. "These are not 'children having children,' nor are they 'Murphy Browns,' " Ms. Gallagher says.
She sees the teen pregnancy problem in American society as inseparable from a much larger marriage problem. "Changing adult ideas about marriage and its relationship to procreation have directly guided the entire cluster of trends in teen behavior," she states. These trends include rising rates of unmarried sex and a weak motivation to use contraceptives.
Getting teenagers and young adults to postpone having a baby while they wait for a good marriage "should become our highest priority," Gallagher concludes. Changing the cavalier "I won't" to a committed "I do" will require a wide- ranging collective effort. Beleaguered teachers, already performing more and more nonacademic duties, can hardly be blamed for resisting another role as classroom defenders of marriage.
But at a time when movies, television, and magazines glorify singlehood, including single motherhood, and when commitment sometimes seems to be a vanishing art and a scary word, marriage needs all the advocates it can find. Hollywood, are you listening?
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society