The issue of sex education in public schools is as contentious as ever, fraught with controversy over religion, family, and ideology. After decades of bitter squabbling, only 24 states mandate any kind of sex education at all. But what about love education? What about the subtle, complex, difficult subject of forming romantic relationships that are equal and enduring? Who is going to teach that?
According to research from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, young people today crave a better understanding of love. They are increasingly dismissive of “disaster preparedness” in sex education — focused largely on avoiding pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease. But by large majorities, up to 70 percent, young adults ages 18-25 told Harvard’s researchers that they wish they had learned more from their parents about what it takes to have a healthy romantic relationship, and 65 percent want it taught in school. “We have a huge industry focused on preparing young people for work,” said Richard Weissbourd, a family psychologist and Harvard professor, “but we offer almost nothing to prepare them for the tender, generous, disciplined work of how to love and be loved.” And in a country where roughly half of all marriages end in divorce, the need for open discussion about love is at least as urgent as learning about sex.
Young people certainly aren’t getting reliable information about love from “the streets,” or from their peers. Popular culture has twisted depictions of love to the point that many teens say they can’t distinguish it from obsession, loneliness, or jealousy. Even the enduring image of being pierced by Cupid’s arrow suggests that love is a condition that happens unbidden — like getting a fever or being hit by a bus — and not something that requires patient attention or even much involvement by the participants themselves. Weissbourd thinks that the concepts promoted in many movies and romantic songs — that true love is forever, or that it is “blind” — can lead young people to stay too long in relationships that are toxic or abusive. “When you think of all the idiotic depictions they’re saturated with, I think it’s more damaging than images of violence,” he said.
Too many parents, mindful of their own relationship difficulties or even failures, may think they can’t give guidance to their children about love. But they have plenty to teach about how to recognize and value honesty, reliability, kindness and other heart qualities in a friend or potential partner. And those skills can also translate into tools to help reduce harassment and sexual assault.
What about a “love curriculum”? American high schools have a hard enough time teaching algebra without wading into the murky subject of romantic attachment. But Matthew Lippman is one teacher who has found a way to weave frank discussions into his high school English courses. When he teaches poetry, memoir, and literature at Beaver Country Day School in Newton, Lippman invites talk about matters of the heart. “I try and get them to discuss these energies that run through their lives,” he says.
His 11th- and 12th-graders study Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet,” especially the one in which he advises his protégé not to see love as a complete surrender of the self into another, but as “two solitudes [that] protect and border and greet each other.” Lippman teaches “Othello,” Shakespeare’s tragic tale of jealousy and lust. He asks students to explain the difference between relationships and hook-ups, or about getting hurt in a breakup, to give them a language to talk about things that leave them frightened or vulnerable. In the end, he says, “They’re kind of grateful.”
For Lippman and Weissbourd, love education is closely linked with moral and ethical values that inform every human interaction, not just the romantic. Weissbourd directs a Harvard project called Making Caring Common, a national effort to help parents and schools raise kind, moral children and young adults. He says the quandaries that bubble up in love education discussions — Should a senior date a freshman? If I know my best friend is cheating, should I tell? — are really just about our obligations to each other as ethical beings.
So maybe love does belong in the classroom. America’s public schools, after all, were founded 400 years ago expressly with the aim of grooming principled, ethical citizens for the new nation. And given the state of civility today, it’s pretty clear we need a refresher course.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.