Big Nurse Wants to Heal Us

GEORGE F. WILL

September 23, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- Some liberal senators seeking wrongs to right have found a bountiful supply of them around playground teeter-totters, on school buses and wherever else kindergartners and grammar-school children congregate and misbehave with Babylonian abandon.

The senators -- the usual suspects: Harkin, Simon, Moseley-Braun, Mikulski -- have authored ''gender equity'' education bills which attack, among other ''crises,'' that of sexual harassment among the young. The very young. Senator Kennedy, a co-sponsor of the bills, says:

''You have first-, second- and third-grade harassers. You have kindergarten harassers. We're reaching out and identifying them the earliest grades, disciplining these individuals. As with every aspect of health care, early intervention can have a big impact.''

Senator Kennedy is indispensable for illuminating the premises of contemporary liberalism. Leave aside the question of whether he is accurately depicting sexual goings-on in grammar schools. But note his use of the phrase ''health care.'' Even if sexual harassment is as rampant as Mr. Kennedy says from kindergarten on, why call this a ''health care'' problem?

One answer is that health care is the hot topic in Washington, a city that has at most a one-track mind. So today people push their pet projects by claiming they are health-care projects. This tactic has often been tried using the phrases ''civil rights'' or JTC ''children's issues,'' as in: ''A strong infrastructure is important for minorities (or children), so this highway bill is really civil-rights (or children's) legislation.''

But the significance of Mr. Kennedy's use of the phrase ''health care'' is more ideological than tactical. It expresses the mentality behind liberalism's faith in therapeutic government.

Sexual harassment, in kindergarten or anywhere, must be a health problem because all problems are health problems. Sexual harassment must be a species of pathology, psychological rather than a characterological defect.

Otherwise liberals will have two horrid dilemmas. They will have to speak the language of personal faults and responsibilities. And they will have to join cultural conservatives in denouncing the contributions of popular culture, including the regnant sensibility of the permissive 1960s, to the corruption of character among the young.

(In Florida, where a 13-year-old arrested in connection with the killing of a tourist has a record of 56 arrests, juvenile criminals come under the jurisdiction of the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. Note the title. There is no mention of crime or punishment, which may be one reason why there is such a high ratio of the former to the latter.)

The idea that conflict between grammar-school boys and girls might result from jealousy, conflicting interests or plain bad behavior would allow the idea that not everything that passes between the sexes is sexual. That idea is repellent to people making careers in the burgeoning ''gender equity'' bureaucracies which the senators' package of bills would further enlarge.

These bills would spend money on ''leadership training'' for girls, on an Office of Gender Equity in the Department of Education, and on much else. The caliber of the reasoning behind the bills can be gauged by this from Senator Kennedy: ''Despite the provisions of Title IX prohibiting sex discrimination in schools receiving federal funds, we continue to see differences in the educational achievement of boys and girls.''

The legislation echoes two reports from the recently radicalized American Association of University Women, reports long on alarm and low on plausible data.

''How Schools Shortchange Girls'' said that teachers have always ''unconsciously'' treated girls and boys differently and are eager to do better but need federal money. ''Hostile Hallways'' reported a ''pervasive climate of sexual harassment,'' with 81 percent of all students, boys and girls, reporting themselves victims. The report found a need for federal money.

Here is what has been happening without Senator Kennedy patrolling the hallways:

By 1979 there were as many women as men in colleges. Today women get most of the B.A. and master's degrees, and probably soon will be majorities in medical and law schools. (In the last 20 years female enrollment in medical schools has gone from 8 percent to 33 percent, in law schools from 5 percent to 41 percent.) More boys than girls flunk grades and are assigned to special-education classes in primary and secondary schools. Although girls do not test as well as boys in math and science, they test better in reading and writing.

But Asian-American eighth-grade girls score significantly better than white males in science. How inconvenient. Families, not schools, make this difference, and many other differences that derive from the families' values, not the families' wealth or the nature of the schools. So, what is the Office of Gender Equity going to do about that?

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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