As part of my lifelong effort/obsession to promote the work of Lester F. Beck, I just nominated the venerable Human Growth (1947) for the National Film Registry. Here’s my pitch (vote early and often!):
Human Growth (1947) is an educational film of great cultural and historic significance, although now mostly forgotten, with only a handful of prints left in existence. Human Growth was the first sex education film shown widely in schools in the United States. At its peak of popularity in the 1950s, there were over 1,000 prints in circulation. “Life” magazine did a glowing five-page feature story on the film in 1948. Favorable reviews were also in “Time,” “Better Homes & Gardens,” and other popular magazines.
The film was sponsored by the E.C. Brown Trust, a social hygiene organization affiliated with the University of Oregon (UO), and based in Portland, Oregon. The Trust hired a UO psychology professor, Dr. Lester F. Beck, to script the film and lead the production. Beck was a nationally recognized expert in audiovisual education and had already made several educational films of his own. Eddie Albert Productions produced the film, and Sy Wexler shot the film. Wexler, who worked as a cameraman in the Signal Corps for Frank Capra on the “Why We Fight” series, went on to make hundreds of educational films through the 1970s.
Human Growth is neither campy nor threatening, unlike many of the more well-known sex education films that came out in the 1950s-1960s. Human Growth approaches its sensitive subject in a calm, facts-based manner. It demonstrates how families and classrooms can discuss sex openly and without embarrassment. Boys and girls are not segregated, and there is no moralizing. The film also models good pedagogical methods and exemplified how it should be used in actual classrooms. In the film, junior high students watch a film called “Human Growth” and the teacher leads them in discussion before and after the film. “Every single aspect of a film being made must have an educational purpose ultimately related to the classroom so that the film will aid the teacher, but never substitute for him,” Dr. Beck wrote in a 1964 article.
The film won every national and international award for documentary film, including the Golden Eagle Award from the Committee on International Non-theatrical Events (CINE). Thousands of schools from all over the United States and 20 countries worldwide adopted the film, with widespread approval from parents and teachers.
According to the scholar Robert Eberwein, “Although not the first sex education film shown to students in public schools in the United States, [Human Growth] has a legitimate claim as being the most important of its kind since it received national attention and would become one of the most widely viewed sex education films for children ever made”(“Sex Ed: Film, Video, and the Framework of Desire,” Rutgers Univ. Press, 1999).
Human Growth went through five subsequent editions to keep pace with current teenagers, most recently in 1998. The first edition from 1947, however, is exceptionally rare, and the film itself has fallen into obscurity. The E.C. Brown Trust, while still in existence as a non-profit foundation, no longer has any of the many films it sponsored. I only recently discovered the master elements in a UO Libraries off-site storage facility. The E.C. Brown Trust funded the cost of a new internegative and digital transfer of the film, and it can be viewed online here: http://media.uoregon.edu/channel/2012/04/03/human-growth-1947/
Nearly 70 years after Human Growth was seen by so many children, sex education in schools is perhaps more controversial than ever, and abstinence-only education is the unfortunate norm for many young people in the United States. Human Growth holds an important place in both the history of sex education and educational film. Its widespread acceptance and acclaim is a testament to its sensible approach and sound educational methods. Human Growth serves as concrete proof that sex education can be an ordinary part of the school day.