Lowell Levin, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at the Yale University School of Medicine, is trained in both education (Ed.D. from Harvard) and public health (M.P.H. from Yale). This unique combination allows him to look at the intersection of the two disciplines with unusual insight.
He was active in the civil rights movement and was one of a group of Yale faculty who served as arbitrators between the medical school and the local community during the protest demonstrations during the late sixties. Those negotiations resulted in the establishment of the community-run Hill Health Center.
He is the author, with Alfred H. Katz and Erik Holst, of Self-Care: Lay Initiatives in Health, and is an Advisory Editor of Medical Self-Care Magazine.
TF: Lowell, you've probably school health education as extensively as anyone in the field. What do you think about the way health is taught in American schools?
LL: School health education is a real disaster area. Not only are we not teaching our kids much that is useful, we may be actively destroying their innate abilities to care for themselves.
Health is frequently taught by bored P.E. teachers who have little theoretical and no clinical training. It's like studying auto mechanics with somebody who's never picked up a wrench in his life. It's a rainy-day activity. Few take it seriously.
We desperately need to transform our so-called health classes into experiences that genuinely promote increased self-care, self-discovery, and opportunities for increased control of one's own life. In fact, that's probably the single most important thing we could do to solve the so-called health crisis in this country. We need to give our kids a good solid education in clinical medicine, just like we do in reading and arithmetic.
How can a health class damage a child’s ability to care for himself?
By teaching children to conform to a very narrow, professionalized view of what health is all about. We're teaching them that chiropractors and herbal remedies and homeopathy and other healing approaches are dangerous and harmful. In so doing, we're prejudicing them against approaches that might be very useful tools.
We teach them that illness is a negative concept and not to be talked about. Health classes never talk about illness—though of course that's exactly what children are most curious about. The message is that only health workers are capable of knowing about such things— which is absolute rot. These classes have been a real form of social control, and it's no accident that organized medicine has had a very active role in determining the content of these classes
What do you think we should be teaching in the schools?
Some of the same things we teach in medical school basic human anatomy and physiology and the causes and treatment of disease. Use the school nurse or doctor as a teacher, and use the actual illness experiences of children and their families as opportunities to learn about illness.
We should teach them to diagnose and treat common minor health problems. We should also teach them which kinds of health problems really require professional help. We should teach them medical consumer skills, so that they're not helpless pawns when they walk into a doctor's office or go into the hospital. We should teach children to take a good medical history, and to understand the questions and what the answers mean.
Suppose you were a parent. How would you go about getting such a program started in your local school?