Amotivation and Other Syndromes

JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN

June 14, 1991|By JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN

Like every other state, Vermont mandates that its publicschools provide ''drug and alcohol education.'' When I taught social studies there, a good chunk of our annual in-service training day was devoted to the subject.

At the podium stood a substance-abuse counselor, a stock character at such ceremonies. In somber tones, he listed several key ''warning signs'' of adolescent drug use: irritability, ''amotivational syndrome,'' and -- a perennial favorite -- poor self-esteem. In the great drug-theory drag-race, what educators call an ''individual deficiency model'' of youth behavior (low self-esteem makes kids get high) seems to have overtaken the old ''information model'' (tell 'em what's bad, and why, and they'll do good) and the trendy ''social (read peer) pressures model.''

The implications are obvious. Send listless kids to the guidance office for drug ''evaluation,'' the speaker advised. And use classroom discussions to promote better self-esteem, because -- Brent Musburger used to say -- the best offense is a good defense.

Timidly, I raised my hand and asked whether our time might be better spent improving our regular classes -- you know, boring stuff like social studies -- than wondering which kids are stoned. I'm willing to believe that self-esteem and drug use are often inversely related, I said. But wouldn't both problems diminish if we made our school more truly educative and less custodial, a place where kids could ''feel good about themselves''?

''No!'' he shot back. I remember, because he repeated it. ''No, no, no.'' The first thing, he said, is to figure out which students are ''using'' and get them into treatment. Then schools must devise specific courses and exercises to bolster ''self-esteem,'' because ''research shows'' that such efforts can help prevent drug abuse.

Actually, ''research shows'' nothing of the sort. For every study indicating a decline in adolescent drug use after exposure to drug education, there's another suggesting that such efforts promote use. An evaluation of Charlotte-Mecklenberg's glitzy ''WHOA! A Great Way to Say No'' project, for example, found that a majority of participants felt it was more difficult to ''Say No'' to drugs after they took the course than before.

There's evidence that ''information model'' programs increase students' factual knowledge -- and might even sway their ''attitude'' against drugs. But neither knowledge nor attitude correlates with behavior, at least not in any study I've seen. You can know a lot about drugs and alcohol, tell a researcher they're evil, and still get wasted on the weekends. Millions do.

Like its object of study, however, drug education can be addictive. Last year the Department of Education lavished $562 million on drug and alcohol prevention, up from $389 million in 1989. State educational agencies have chipped in further vast sums. And the schools are cheerfully complying. In 1987 (the last time the Department of Education reported to Congress on drug education), 90 percent of 700 surveyed districts were teaching about ''ways to improve self-esteem'' and ''ways to resist peer pressure.''

Amid swelling deficits and slumping test scores, how can such vague ventures win such solid support? One plausible answer lies in another set of statistics, the Household Survey of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which reports that both frequent (one a month) and occasional (once a year) adolescent use of alcohol and illegal drugs has declined since 1985 (except for hallucinogens, which witnessed a minor vogue). Who cares about a few computer nerds and their nay-saying prevention studies? Parents and educators reason that something must be going right at school. And if it ain't broke, why fix it?

That's bullish news for the drug-education industry. Nobody knows how many millions grease the palms of drug counselors, teacher trainers (states often require drug education for certification) and treatment-center tycoons. Business is booming in Vermont; my school referred dozens of allegedly ''addicted'' students to private counselors and even to residential facilities, where families or their insurance companies cough up hundreds of dollars per day. (Like drug and alcohol education, coerced ''treatment'' has proliferated despite strong evidence that it doesn't work. Many students told me that the kids who were sent to ''rehab'' came back using more drugs and alcohol, after immersion in an environment where everybody does it.)

We should not expect these entrepreneurs to tell the truth about adolescent drug and alcohol patterns. The truth is that overall use has decreased -- and that some use can be perfectly harmless. By defining all use as abuse, the drug-education industry solidifies its hold on the market: for every user a ''problem,'' and for every problem a ''treatment.''

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