Marriage 101: a hard look

For several generations, junior high and high school students have studied subjects related to marriage - among them, home economics, life management, and family and consumer sciences. But now, in what constitutes a noteworthy trend, around 2,000 schools nationwide offer "marriage education," programs intended to curb high rates of divorce by preparing American young people for more stable marriages.

High school marriage education is a component of pro-marriage initiatives by public leaders in a number of states. And Florida has made marriage education a high school graduation requirement since 1998.

Recently, I examined 10 "marriage and relationships" curricula for teens on the educational market. They provided a kind of portrait of how educators and community leaders currently view marriage, and what skills they feel are necessary to pass on to young people. This portrait is not unpromising. Most of these curricula concentrate on furnishing young people with the tools of self-knowledge, self-assertion, and diplomacy that will facilitate better choices of marriage partners and smoother family lives.

But while the new marriage-education curricula may provide young people with crucial models of civility and tact (models fast disappearing from popular entertainment), they don't always provide strong rationales for making and keeping marital vows.

Some programs did little to distinguish marriage from other intimate relationships. Thus, they did not adequately address parental and public concerns about the harmful consequences of cohabitation and unmarried childbearing.

Two programs that did focus heavily on marriage (rather than on more generic discussions of "relationships") portrayed marriage as a "risky" and conflict-ridden institution. These programs also avoided any deeper discussion of marital roles that might force them into gender specificity.

Instead of a richer discussion on mothering and fathering, they offered rather shallow overviews of "parenting." Instead of talking about "husbands" and "wives," they often used the term "partners." In its solicitousness to appear egalitarian, one program in particular openly disparaged gender roles - making the pronouncement that "Husbands should share household duties equally with their wives," rather than promoting some notion of flexibility in negotiating the everyday tasks of life with their mates.

More disturbing, however, is the failure of most marriage programs to offer a comprehensive portrait of marriage as something more than simply a private relationship: namely, as an institution of social utility, cultural significance and spiritual gifts.

Few of the programs set marriage in any cultural framework at all. Several offered no historical, anthropological, or sociological information on courtship or marriage. Only two provided the kind of inspiration from literature or the arts that might engage students in a vicarious rehearsal of what ultimately will be their primary affair of the heart.

I did, however, find three very good programs with widely differing approaches - "Connections: Relationships and Marriage;" "RQ: Building Relationship Intelligence;" and "The Art of Loving Well."

These programs - the first a lively activities-oriented program that focuses on the practical challenges of mate-selection, marriage, and child-rearing; the second, an engaging sociological and moral critique of the sexual revolution and the current crisis of family breakdown; and the third, an anthology of fine literature on romance and marriage - are all exemplary in their own way. But none offered a complete marriage-preparation course for young people.

A complete course would combine instruction in communication skills with interdisciplinary knowledge about the institution of marriage, along with some literary and moral inspiration on the subject of lasting love. It would guide teen dating behaviors with a view to eventual marriage, and deepen understanding of the importance of stable marriages not only as a means to personal satisfaction, but as the foundation of a healthy civic life.

Perhaps it's no surprise that most marriage curricula reflect a larger metamorphosis in American education: the deconstruction of a curriculum based on cultural narratives and ideal forms replaced by a curriculum focused on technical skills and therapeutic advice.

If we are serious about lowering the divorce rate and improving the lives of American children, we have to introduce programs that teach marriage as much more than simply a set of communication skills.

If I may borrow Shakespeare's words, we have to provide young people something of a heroic vision of marital commitment as that "ever fixed mark/ That looks on tempests and is never shaken...."

Dana Mack, an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values, is editor of the forthcoming 'The Book of Marriage: The Wisest Answers to the Toughest Questions' (Eerdmans Publishing).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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