Health education - American EducationThe formal classroom instruction of children, from kindergarten through high school, in matters concerning the care of their bodies, dietary and sleep needs, eating disorders, birth, death and dying, suicide, disease prevention, sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, substance abuse (tobacco, alcohol, drugs, etc.), violence, gangs, cheating and lying, exercise and AIDS.
Required in more than 30 states as of 1995, health education remains a source of controversy in many school districts. Many parents contend that the role of schools should be limited to instruction in traditional academic subjects and that health education encourages children to experiment in practices they (the parents) deem objectionable. Those favoring health education insist that experimentation is a natural and inevitable aspect of maturation and that youngsters equipped with accurate knowledge are less likely to experiment in selfdestructive activities and are better equipped to handle peer pressures and temptations to engage in illicit behavior.
Often couched as “mini-courses” within traditional biology, home economics or PHYSICAL EDUCATION courses, health education has its roots in the GYMNASIA of ancient Greece, where physical and intellectual exercises were deemed essential to the unity of the total being and essential for conditioning young men as warriors. In 1823, Catherine Beecher may have been the first teacher to introduce health education in an American school when, in one of the great innovations of her day, she introduced calisthenics and exercise as part of the regular curriculum at her famed Hartford Female Seminary in Connecticut. In an article entitled “Letters to the People on Health and Happiness” in 1856, Beecher described the sickly condition of a large proportion of American women and children and warned teachers that the “two grand causes of ill health and physical deterioration so common are, first, a want of knowledge [her italics] of the construction of the body and the laws of health; and, next, a want of thought and conscience on the subject.” She then urged “every school” to adopt a planned system of physical exercises that she had invented and that contained
all that either sex needs for the perfect development of the body. . . . For this purpose it ought to be the official duty of one person to take charge of all that relates to the health and physical training of every collection of the young for education. . . . The teacher who has charge of the Health Department might give out one lesson a week from this [Beecher’s] book to the whole school. This should be preceded by a familiar lecture on the subject, illustrated by specimens.
Few schools other than women’s academies followed Beecher’s suggestions until after the Civil War, when secular educators began taking charge of men’s schools and replacing the clerical teachers who had frowned on exercise and sports as sinful amusements. By the late 19th century, gymnasia began to be added to school, college and university plants, following the development by Luther Gulick of a formal physical education program that was eventually integrated into elementary and secondary school curricula.
The classroom elements of health education seem to have emerged as an outgrowth of intensive student questioning of teachers in physical education, biology, home economics and like subjects. Formal classroom courses in health education average one hour a week for two years. For that reason, few teachers specialize in health education, which, in most schools, is a part-time position. Most health education courses are traditionally assigned to physical education teachers, many of whom have limited formal training in health education and its pedagogy.