Four years ago, psychologist Leonard Sax (MD, PhD) wrote a well-received book titled “Boys Adrift.” The doctor tried to answer the question, why have so many young males fallen into passivity and indifference?
Dr. Sax had heard more and more parents complain that their boys stayed indoors most of the time, spent hours on video games, and in general seemed to lack the confidence and esprit de corps that had characterized boys throughout history.
“Something scary is happening to boys today,” Sax concluded. “From kindergarten to college, American boys are, on average, less resilient and less ambitious than they were a mere twenty years ago. The gender gap in college attendance and graduation rates has widened dramatically.”
The book’s full title is, “Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men.” Sax lists the five factors right on the cover: “video games, teaching methods, prescription drugs, environmental toxins, devaluation of masculinity.”
It’s worrisome that he seems to like them all. That might be a clue that he has not solved this mystery. Indeed, let’s consider the possibility that none of these theories is the deep answer we want. Let’s start from scratch and consider the things we know for sure.
First of all, critics have often noted that schools seem organized more for girls than for boys. Most boys do not want to be confined to a desk; they would rather be outside playing and competing. Second, not only are boys kept passively inside, they are forced to deal almost the entire day with reading, writing, and arithmetic, probably not their own first choices.
But these factors are historically common. Boys have always been restless at their desks. They have often stared out the window and daydreamed. Furthermore, in many other cultures and ages, discipline was greater; serious academic work was demanded. So it’s not as if there were some golden age when boys had it better. No, they have it worse today, and for reasons that are new.
We are now arriving at the heart of darkness.
Consider that all school activity revolves around two basic skills, reading and arithmetic. Students spend a lot of each day on these and must learn them in order to advance to any other subjects. Failure in these two subjects virtually guarantees failure in all subjects, and in all of life.
Perversely, our public schools, for more than 50 years, have used dysfunctional methods that virtually guarantee failure for the ordinary boy (that is, a boy who will struggle to a degree but finally says, screw this.)
To learn to read, he is told he must memorize English words as graphic designs. He fails for all the reasons that Rudolf Flesch explained in his 1955 bestseller, “Why Johnny Can’t Read.” Almost as devastating, the boy must learn arithmetic using one of the dozen curricula collectively called Reform Math. These are exceptionally cumbersome and frustrating for children, as has been amply documented.
Now imagine a boy, restless and impatient, locked in a situation he doesn’t really like, engaged in activities he might prefer to avoid. He senses that instruction is gratuitously difficult and tedious. Increasingly, he rebels. Already he glimpses a future hopeless and horrible, where he will never be allowed to succeed.
He comes to school every day depressed and is told to memorize sight-words, which is very difficult to do. If he actually does master 100, the next 100 will overwhelm his brain. Simultaneously, he is made to learn arithmetic in ways that he can’t understand. Even his parents can’t explain to him the techniques he is supposed to learn.
So every day, every week, every month, the ordinary boy stares at a sign flashing in the air: ACCESS:DENIED.
Whatever it is he is supposed to do, he can’t do it. He wants to, he really, really wants to. What else does a boy have but cockiness and confidence? Boys rule! Or they once did. But their sense of being master of any situation is no match for the dark genius of our Education Establishment.
He becomes sullen, then angry. He hears his parents whispering about him. He goes to conferences where his teacher talks about remediation and dyslexia. He’s told he has ADHD. He might need Ritalin.
Imagine when he is seven and failing. Imagine when he is eight and still failing. Imagine when he is nine and more blatantly failing. Imagine how many discussions he has had with his teacher and parents about his inability to do the simplest things. Imagine the interior collapse of confidence. If his parents and all adults in his world think, to put it bluntly, that he is retarded, then he must be.
The signs flash everywhere: SUCCESS: IMPOSSIBLE. DREAMS: CRUSHED.
Dr. Sax put a lot of emphasis on video games but perhaps he has it backwards. Consider that the school world makes boys feel helpless. But the virtual world lets many boys be the smart, extremely capable people they actually are. Which world would you choose to remain in all day?
Dr. Sax puts a lot of emphasis on early literacy instruction, as if this is a strain. Why would it be a strain if boys actually did learn to read? Reading is fun. It’s the con that is the strain. It’s adults pretending to teach children to read but not letting them learn to read that is the killer.
Dr. Sax speaks of masculinity being undervalued. Maybe it’s more directly a case of masculinity hemmed in and, as the school years pass, neutralized.
Finally. one can never escape the impression that there is premeditation in all of this. Does the Education Establishment use these methods to induce a loss of confidence? Then they are evil people. If they don’t know any better, then they are incompetent people.