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."
But the kids know better. Adolescents wear what I call "B.S. detectors." Too young to be cynical, they're hypersensitive to dissembling. If you set off the detector, you lose their trust -- and you teach them how to deceive like an adult. Rule Number One at my school was that teachers could never divulge their own use histories, even if asked. You lie to them about the drug menace, then you lie about yourself.
Drug warriors bridle at such teacher dissent. Some even ascribe the failure of drug and alcohol education to the "mixed messages" teachers transmit. Kids need a simple message, they argue. Just say . . . you know the rest. "Phrases like 'research is inconclusive' or 'not enough is known to make a judgment' about the effects of drugs are red flags," warns the Education Department's guide to drug-prevention curricula. "There is a wealth of conclusive research about the harmful effects of drugs, and curricula should not waffle on this point."
But there's a "wealth of conclusive research" about the benign effects of drugs, too. In 1988, a pair of UCLA psychologists who tracked 700 teens over eight years showed what every high school kid already knows: Whereas "heavy" adolescent use of drugs and alcohol predicts for such adult social ills as crime, job instability and divorce, mere dabbling or experimentation does not. Millions of Americans lead healthy, constructive lives that include, or used to include, occasional use of illegal drugs and alcohol.
The truly nefarious "mixed message" is propagated by a drug-education industry that preaches abstinence to students who go home and watch Spuds McKenzie or the Bud Bowl -- with Dad in his chair cracking open a cold one.
What, then, should we teach about drugs and alcohol? Lest I stand accused of "denial" or "enabling" -- the key thought-crimes of the industry -- I should acknowledge that frequent teen alcohol or drug use lends untold misery to adolescents and to their families and schools. But the answer is not to teach more about drugs and alcohol, or even to teach about these substances differently.
The answer is to teach about them less -- and to enliven our schools. Most kids I've known describe school in a single adjective: boring. Of course schools should have a strict no-use policy within their walls -- for the same reasons employers should. Of course they should provide optional counseling and referral services for students and parents. And of course they should answer all student queries about the subject honestly and directly. Beyond that, the best drug-prevention program would strive to animate academic courses -- yes, boring stuff like social studies -- so students would strive to learn them.
The next time you drive by a nursery school, stop a moment and watch the children -- naturally curious, inquisitive and enthusiastic. Then swing by the local high school, where you will find the greatest conceivable indictment of American education. The impassioned 5-year-old has become the impassive 15-year-old, who ambles aimlessly through drab corridors and dull classes. The drug counselor's "warning signs" -- particularly "amotivational syndrome" -- afflict more than adolescent drug users; they afflict most adolescents, because most adolescents are bored by school. No form of "drug and alcohol education" will change that.
Jonathan Zimmerman is a doctoral student in history at the Johns Hopkins University.