A textbook example of experts' fallacies

November 08, 1998|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- An old joke: A preacher, called to a new church, arrives the day of a funeral at which he must preside. Having never known the deceased, he asks the congregation for voluntary eulogies. A voice from a rear pew shouts, "His brother was even worse."

What can be said on behalf of high school textbooks concerning marriage is that college texts are even worse. So say two reports from the Council on Families of the Institute for American Values.

In "The Course of True Love: Marriage in High School Textbooks," Paul C. Vitz of New York University praises six high school texts for treating marriage respectfully, discouraging teen-age marriage and encouraging teen-age sexual abstinence. However, the same texts cram the subject of marriage into the categories of "health," using a congealing vocabulary lumpy with psychotherapeutic emphasis on self-actualization and self-esteem.

Marriage is treated as just one ingredient in a tossed salad of health-related subjects -- diet, managing stress, bicycle helmets, skin care, getting sufficient sleep, tobacco and, oh, yes, a lifelong commitment to love, cherish and raise children with another person. "Taking a public vow of eternal faithfulness to another human being becomes akin to an act of hygiene, like, say, flossing one's teeth," Mr. Vitz writes.

Teen-agers respond to what Mr. Vitz calls "the big, interesting words -- mystery, romance, love, flirtation, jealousy, courtship, passion." But these are largely unexamined in the texts, which drain away drama in a quest for objectivity, understood as moral neutrality. Eros is banished, replaced by . . . nothing much.

Obsessed with health, the texts often present the world as much more menacing than it is. For example: "Almost half a million [American] children die each year at the hands of their abusers." That is off by a factor of 500-to-1: Annually, there are about 1,000 such fatalities.

Approximately 80 percent of U.S. marriages occur in houses of worship. However, public schools, aggressively secular and understandably phobic about litigation, scant that subject. Worse, they are cheerfully "nonjudgmental" about single parenthood and other problematic "lifestyle choices," as in this chipper fatuity: "Families vary in structure, but each type of family is as acceptable as any other."

Four of the six texts do not even have "religion" in their indexes, but the texts make an ersatz religion of self-esteem. For example, one text says, "The most important relationship you have in your life is the relationship you have with yourself." Another: "Plan a date to take yourself on -- alone." A third: "To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance."

Notice, self-esteem is presented, even in books on marriage, as an attitude not based on connectedness with others. Readers of these texts encounter what Mr. Vitz describes as an "emotionally dark" world in which self-sufficiency is a better bet than interdependency.

Such pap will not be corrected when high school graduates get to college. There, according to a 1997 Institute report, texts take a "determinedly pessimistic" approach, presenting marriage as "more a problem than a solution." In "Closed Hearts, Closed Minds: The Textbook Story of Marriage," Norval Glenn of the University of Texas assesses 20 texts, concluding that they are "a national embarrassment" and both causes and effects of the weakened condition of marriage.

Generations ago, Mr. Glenn writes, Americans sought advice about marriage -- a nearly universal child-rearing bond -- from family, friends or religious figures. Now we have "experts" writing texts that ignore abundant research about the generally superior health and happiness of married people, and assert that marriage is an often physically threatening and psychologically stifling option.

One text says "marriage has an adverse effect on women's mental health." Another explains that although a majority of surveyed wives say they are happy, that is because "happiness is interpreted by wives in terms of conformity. Since they are conforming to society's expectations, this must be happiness."

The ideological cast of the "expert" class can be gauged from this textbook gem: The 1950's "brought only a flicker of contentment to a minuscule number of white, middle-class, suburban U.S. families." After all, if America is not dysfunctional, what are "experts" to do with their expertise?

Mr. Vitz has a modest proposal: Abandon textbooks. Instead, expose students to great works of literature and art that examine love and marriage. Artists, poets, novelists, sculptors -- Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Rodin, for starters -- have expressed themselves well on those subjects, or at least as well as can be expected from people who are not "experts."

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/08/98

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