Making Men out of Boys
“As a busily growing animal, I am scatterbrained and entirely lacking in mental application. Having no desire at present to expend my precious energies upon the pursuit of knowledge, I shall not make the slightest attempt to assist you in your attempts to impart it. If you can capture my unwilling attention and goad me by stern measures into the requisite activity, I shall dislike you intensely, but I shall respect you. If you fail, I shall regard you with the contempt you deserve, and probably do my best, in a jolly, high-spirited way, to make your life a hell upon earth. And what could be fairer than that?”
—Ian Hay, Housemaster
Being a man is tough. Becoming a man is tougher.
In the last decade, numerous articles, books, and online commentaries have addressed the subject of the adolescent male adult. Physically and legally, he is a man; he can grow a beard, buy whiskey, join the Army, and make babies. He can lay pipe, wield a hammer, deal in stocks, sell real estate, and manage a restaurant. He can do all these things and more, yet in some key respects he remains a teenager. He still regards himself as the center of the world, primarily concerned with his own wants and desires. When not working, he dresses as he did in high school. His love of toys and amusements is little changed from the time he was 12. He defines commitment to marriage and children as obligations to be avoided. Duty is not a word in his dictionary.
Concurrent with this social trend are the dismal statistics regarding male education. Males now make up only 43 percent of our nation’s college students, with the balance in some universities having become so lopsided that admissions officers quietly recruit male applicants. With the exception of engineering and mathematics, females dominate graduate-school enrollment. The National Center for Education Statistics recently noted that for the last 27 years the number of female graduate students has exceeded the number of males. Nearly 50 percent of the students admitted to medical and law school are female.
That boys have fallen behind girls in elementary and secondary schools is common knowledge. In 2010 the Center on Education Policy released data showing boys reading at a level ten-percent below that of girls. In the same year the Department of Education concluded that, while all student reading scores are falling, for the last 30 years boys have scored worse on these tests than girls in every age group, every year.
That we are failing to educate boys is apparent to all but the most doctrinaire feminists. In May 2008, when the American Association of University Women disputed any “boys crisis” in education, parents and teachers alike reacted with caustic incredulity. Even at the AAUW’s own website, the report aroused a negative reaction. Typical was the response of Adrianne, a self-described “sad and mad professor and mom,” who summed up the report as “stunningly short-sighted, myopic, and irresponsible.” (U.S. prison administrators, directors of the world’s most populous penal system, would have choked with laughter at the AAUW’s claims, as 1 of every 73 American males is currently incarcerated.)
This decline in male learning and maturity is the result of a 50-year assault on the old virtues of manhood. Uncle Sam has been vanquished by Aunt Samantha and her “nanny state,” whereby government has infantilized both men and women. The widespread use of the Pill and other contraceptives have freed men from the obligations once associated with fatherhood. Forty years of high divorce rates have damaged marriage and created millions of matriarchal households, allowing fathers to evade their duties while simultaneously stripping young men of the example of masculinity and fatherhood. A heavy emphasis on female education, brought about by fears that girls were being denied opportunities available to boys, has made classrooms less friendly to boys, ended most all-male educational institutions, and brought about an attitude of reverse chauvinism. Television and movies—think Seinfeld, The Big Bang Theory, Community, Dumb and Dumber, and the like—have made the bumbling father and adult teenagers models of manhood.
Some academics and writers contend that the alterations in the definition of manhood simply reflect the sea change in our culture. The code of manliness—how antiquated that word sounds, even to those who treasure it—is, these critics argue, superfluous. The manly virtues that once carried men across oceans in tiny ships, and soldiers into battle, no longer serve a purpose. Technology, social safety nets, sexual equality, a kinder and gentler society: These are replacing the masculine attributes of independence, hard work, courage, duty, and honor. These same critics make their prophecies self-fulfilling by brushing aside what they view as patriarchal alternatives in education: bringing back trade and vocational classes to high schools, teaching boys in all-male classes or schools, restoring discipline to the classroom.
On a grand scale, the outcome of this war on tradition and manhood looks bleak. The flags come down these days without a shot being fired. You want to open a public school in Detroit for young black males, a campus stressing discipline and hard work? No way. You’re discriminating against females. Want to fill the need of young boys for more physical activity? No can do. Insurance costs for playgrounds are prohibitive. Besides, recess takes away the opportunity to teach students that the environment is going to hell and that George Washington was an oppressor.
Having spent 50 years educating boys as if they were girls, we now gape in wonder at their failure, their frustration, and their anger.
Yet we must remember that ours is the age of little wars, guerilla wars, and it is by becoming guerilla fighters ourselves that we may find our hope. We can refuse the blandishments of certain educators and the government, the solecisms that pass for truth, the culture working to make males second-class learners and citizens. We—mothers and fathers, grandparents, teachers, mentors—can do battle against these enemies of manhood and give boys the tools they need to grow up.
We begin by teaching boys from an early age the romance and adventure of life. How did the adolescent who played a high-minded knight-errant evolve into a sullen, nihilistic teenager? How did that same adolescent become the 30-year-old who wears his baseball cap backward, plays more video games than the teenager, and lives with his parents? Boys who come of age watching sex and violence in movies, or the cynicism offered by most television comedies, who listen to loveless music drenched in ugliness and despair, who possess no sense of responsibility or consequence, will likely join Peter Pan’s tribe of Lost Boys. To buck this trend, we must keep a vigilant watch on the culture. To grow men, we must teach our boys heroism, taking our models from literature, movies, and living examples.
We must also raise our expectations of boys. Here in Asheville I offer seminars in Latin, literature, and history to homeschooled students. Faced with sons whose academic performances have fallen behind their sisters or their female peers, and taught by experts that boys develop more slowly than girls, some parents I know buy into the excuse that “boys will be boys,” and that they mustn’t be pushed too hard. The same mother who urges her daughters to excel and who delights in their accomplishments will excuse her sons’ lack of diligence because “they are boys.”
These lowered expectations cause enormous and unnecessary damage. The game is lost before it begins. Imagine a basketball coach saying to his team, “All right, guys. We’re playing Central today. They’re bigger, tougher, and better than we are. Just go out on the court, and I’ll be proud of you.” That coach should earn the contempt of every young man under his charge. They look to him to light a fire in their bellies, and he gives them a bucketful of water. It is one thing to recognize that most boys do indeed learn at a different pace than girls in some subjects. It is quite another to diminish our expectations to the point of guaranteeing failure.
Here we need to remember that boys often require a sharper discipline than girls. Because my son played basketball for the Trailblazers, our local homeschool team, I have spent a good amount of time watching various teams at practice and at play. This past year, the coaches of both the girls’ and boys’ varsity teams were male. The girls’ coach, whose chief problems on the team were bickering and personality conflicts, rarely raised his voice and spent much time soothing hurt feelings. The boys’ coach, confronted by a lack of discipline and a spirit of rebellion on the part of a few players, had no difficulty shouting at the players, yanking them from the floor if they wouldn’t listen, and running the entire team through suicide drills for infractions. The boys grumbled, but gave him their respect. And like the girls, they won games.
Boys require this same fire and sense of discipline from their parents and teachers in their academic work. They must be pushed to excel in their studies just as we push them to win games on the soccer field or basketball court. It is useful to understand, and to point out to them, that their competitors aren’t girls, of course, or even other boys, but themselves and their own ignorance.
Finally, boys must be brought to books. They must be lured, cajoled, pushed—if necessary, shoved—into becoming readers. Poorly developed reading skills torpedo a student’s chance for success in the classroom and in life. For two years I taught GED classes in a state prison. When asked, my prison students recalled losing interest in school in the third or fourth grade, those same years when reading and writing become vital to a student’s classroom success.
Our current abuse of technology, a plague that has killed off more readers than the Black Death killed souls in Europe, deserves special mention. It is no coincidence that the 30-year decline in boys’ reading scores begins in the 1980’s, when home video games first became popular among adolescent males. From their inception, these games appealed almost exclusively to boys—that’s why Nintendo marketed a Game Boy—and even during that digital stone-age teachers were complaining about the nefarious influence of such entertainments on reading skills. When I first offered my seminars in Asheville in 1998, not one of my students owned a cellphone. No one arrived in class plugged in to an iPod. Several lacked access to a computer. Facebook and texting had yet to enter either the language or the marketplace. Computer games existed, of course, but these were played almost exclusively by male students.
The last decade has radically changed this situation. Many of my students are now on Facebook, all have iPods, all text with their cellphones. Games for boys remain a high priority. My middle-school writing students keep a journal. With each passing year, more boys write about their gaming exploits while at the same time confessing to the page how far behind they are in their schoolwork. Never in these journals has a female student mentioned computer gaming except when at a party and in the company of males.
If nothing else, this conflict between electronics and print becomes a question of time management. The equation is simple: The hours spent watching television, texting, or blowing away bad guys with electronic weapons means fewer hours available for reading books. The remedy for such a situation is simple in concept and difficult in execution. To make better readers of boys, parents and guardians must bring under control the firestorm of electronic entertainment that surrounds all of us today.
Whenever possible, the books selected for adolescents and teenage males should provide models of manly behavior. In their attempt to attract male readers, some pragmatic educators and publishers have pushed books that do well in the marketplace but offer little to lift the hearts and minds of readers. The worst of these books focus on bodily functions—farts, burps, and so on. Sales are up for these “grossology” books, and even a distinguished publisher like Penguin offers such titles as Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger.
Advocates of Sir Fartsalot or the Captain Underpants series claim that it makes no difference what a boy reads, as long as he is reading. Yet what would we think of a parent who said of her son that “whatever he eats is good as long as he is eating”? And where is the payoff? At what point does the adolescent male magically segue from The Day My Butt Went Psycho to The Yearling or Sounder or Treasure Island? And what does it say about a boy in the 21st century that he must be lured to reading by such squalid stuff? In an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “How to Raise Boys That Read,” Thomas Spence, president of Spence Publishing Company and a father of boys, wisely remarked that, “if you keep meeting a boy where he is, he doesn’t go very far.”
Parents can help their sons strive for this level of excellence by providing books worthy of them. For elementary-school readers, books like Calvin and Hobbes and the TinTin series contain extensive vocabularies and attract the interest of most boys. Authors such as Richard Scarry and Roald Dahl remain perpetually in vogue. Books from the Landmark Series and from the Childhood of Famous Americans series can lead boys into deeper reading of history and biography. Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, the Hardy Boys and Sherlock Holmes mysteries, the Westerns of Louis L’Amour, the fantasies of the Lightning Thief mythologies or the Harry Potter stories: These can pull readers to classics like The Red Badge of Courage, Johnny Tremain, and The Count of Monte Cristo. Certain magazines, too, can appeal to boys. The feature stories in Sports Illustrated, for example, contain some of the finest writing done in magazines today.
Reading does more than prepare students for academics. Great literature of all kinds as well as the best of movies—Master and Commander, Secondhand Lions, and others—teach lessons for real life. To learn to love, to learn to stand up for what is right, to learn to suffer—these are the lessons of manhood and require real-life experience, but boys can use literature and history as the training grounds for these battles.
You want to rear a boy properly? Limit his time with games and gadgets. Provide him with good books. Push him to excel. Guide him with a firm hand. Cast a vigilant eye on what he sees and does outside the home. These will require great effort and willpower on your part, but in the end you’ll have not only a reader, but a student. Maybe even a man.
Jeff Minick writes from Asheville, North Carolina.
This article first appeared in the September 2012 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.