Alcohol Education in Public Schools – A Brief History

If we told you to give your child a glass of Italian wine, what would you say to us?

Of course, you’d likely say no! How could we possibly say that you should give any young child alcohol?

We’re not recommending that you do! But the point we’re making is that this very reaction is more modern than you might think. In fact, if we’d made that recommendation in the 19th century, most parents wouldn’t bat an eyelid at it. In fact, many would already be feeding their children alcohol in some form or another.

What this shows us is that there’s been a change in perception of alcohol over the centuries, and rightfully so as it’s important to show that even the most wonderful of Italian wines can lead to health issues when consumed at dangerous levels.

Still, we thought it would be interesting to find out exactly how and why this change in perception occurred. And to do that, we have to journey back to the 19th century and the Temperance organisations of that time.

What is the Temperance Movement?

The Temperance Movement is the term used for a collective of organisations that all have one goal in mind – the eradication of alcohol.

While that may sound extreme, there are many within the movement who call for all people to be teetotal and will criticise any who choose to drink. More moderate members may not call for the banning of alcohol entirely. However, they will still criticise those who drink to the point of intoxication. That means that the last time a glass of Italian wine made you tipsy, you also made yourself a target for the Temperance Movement’s ire!

However, the Temperance Movement is not as prominent today as it used to be. While it still exists, it was in the 19th century that the movement really began to pick up steam. 

And that brings us to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. It was this group that made the initial push to introduce alcohol education into schools in the late 1800s. In those early days of alcohol education in public schools, most of the teaching focused on how alcohol was deemed to affect both society and the family unit. Of course, the source of that teaching was an organisation that was very much against alcohol consumption, which biased the teaching somewhat. It was not until later that students would start to receive more balanced messages based on the concept of moderation and responsibility ahead of complete abstinence.

The Health Question

With the subject of alcohol becoming more deeply entrenched in schools during the 19th century and early 20thcentury, perceptions amongst parents naturally began to change. So too did children’s understanding of alcohol, as they would begin to see it as a dangerous concoction that could ruin their lives thanks to biased teaching. 

It would take several decades for this viewpoint to balance out and for the influence of the Temperance Movement to mostly disappear from alcohol education.

But before this could happen, another big switch in teaching focus had to occur. As mentioned, early alcohol education focused on the effects of intoxication on society at large and within the family unit. But by the time the 1930s came, more research had been done on the effects of alcohol on people’s health. As a result, this became the main crux of the learning experience in schools, with movements such as Prohibition in the United States also contributing to a desire to pain alcohol as the source of many health problems.

Still, this was an important step in the progression towards a more balanced approach to teaching about alcohol. While this early lessons would certainly focus on the negative effects of consuming too much, this switch in focus also opened the door for the more positive health effects of alcohol to come to light. For example, we now know that Italian red wine contains antioxidants that can lead to a healthier heart and reduced signs of ageing when consumed responsibly.

What We See in Alcohol Education Today

While there is certainly more balance in alcohol education in the modern day, we can still see the fingerprints of these early teaching styles in schools all over the world.

Just think back to your own days in school.

Whenever alcohol was the subject of a lesson, how many times was it shown in a positive light? In many cases, teaching about alcohol focuses on reducing the amount that a young person might drink, if not focusing entirely on abstinence. 

This is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, younger people tend to be more impulsive and prone to experimentation. Perhaps education about the negative effects of alcohol could prevent some youngsters from going too far with it when they’re experimenting.

On the flipside, the overtones of alcohol being some evil concoction can lead to it becoming more desirable to kids. After all, a teenager who’s prone to rebellion will do the things that they’re told not to do. Drinking alcohol could certainly count amongst those things if they’ve been bombarded with education about how dangerous alcohol can be.

Ultimately, we believe that full balance is required to teach about alcohol effectively. And in fact, many organisations, schools included, that teach about alcohol follow what it known as the Effective Education model. This is as follows:

  1. Provide accurate, truthful and unbiased information about alcohol and its consumption.
  2. Distinguish between abuse and use of alcohol.
  3. Teach the possible consequences of underage purchase, possession and/or consumption of alcoholic beverages under the legal age.
  4. Teach effective ways to reduce the potential threat/harm that can be a result from the abuse of alcohol.

So when posed that scenario at the start of the article, it was simply to demonstrate the automatic reaction that comes from the teaching we receive about alcohol. Perhaps it’s best to not leave this up to the schools. Instead, perhaps it is your responsibility to teach your children how to consume alcohol responsible.

After all, you can offer a more balanced and truthful approach than almost any other organisation.