Today’s debates about sex education in the U.S. have a tendency to come back to the question of abstinence versus contraception. But back in 1948, when a sex-education curriculum was introduced to the seventh graders at Theodore Roosevelt Junior High School in Eugene, Ore., the conversation never strayed too far from the strictly biological.
The students in Miss Blenkinsop’s class were among the first in the country to watch the educational film Human Growth, developed by University of Oregon psychology professor Lester F. Beck. Unlike many educational films that came later, Human Growth did not resort to fear-mongering or sensationalism. The subject matter was presented in a straightforward, digestible way for its target audience.
Human Growth would soon be used widely as an educational tool. Beck had developed other educational films before this one, and the film incorporated ten years of research and testing. The producer “shot and reshot every scene to eliminate any phrase or expression that could cause embarrassment to the audience.” In a poll of 7,000 Oregon parents, 6,850 responded that they looked forward to their children seeing it, and many even suggested that it be shown before junior high.
LIFE Magazine captured the students’ reactions to the 19-minute film using a hidden camera. After watching the film, they asked questions. Their inquiries fell mostly on the technical side of the process of pregnancy and birth: “Why are babies born headfirst?” “How does a baby breathe inside its mother?” “Is it dark inside the mother?” But one boy had a more personal concern. “Do all men have whiskers? When will I get them?” he asked Miss Blenkinsop.
“Don’t worry about it,” she consoled him. “You’ll surely get them before you’re 16.”