By David Brooks, New York Times, July 5, 2012
Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s most appealing characters. He was rambunctious when young and courageous when older. But suppose Henry went to an American school.
By about the third week of nursery school, Henry’s teacher would be sending notes home saying that Henry “had another hard day today.” He was disruptive during circle time. By midyear, there’d be sly little hints dropped that maybe Henry’s parents should think about medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Many of the other boys are on it, and they find school much easier.
By elementary school, Henry would be lucky to get 20-minute snatches of recess. During one, he’d jump off the top of the jungle gym, and, by the time he hit the ground, the supervising teachers would be all over him for breaking the safety rules. He’d get in a serious wrestling match with his buddy Falstaff, and, by the time he got him in a headlock, there’d be suspensions all around.
First, Henry would withdraw. He’d decide that the official school culture is for wimps and softies and he’d just disengage. In kindergarten, he’d wonder why he just couldn’t be good. By junior high, he’d lose interest in trying and his grades would plummet.
Then he’d rebel. If the official high school culture was über-nurturing, he’d be über-crude. If it valued cooperation and sensitivity, he’d devote his mental energies to violent video games and aggressive music. If college wanted him to be focused and tightly ambitious, he’d exile himself into a lewd and unsupervised laddie subculture. He’d have vague high ambitions but no realistic way to realize them. Day to day, he’d look completely adrift.
This is roughly what’s happening in schools across the Western world. The education system has become culturally cohesive, rewarding and encouraging a certain sort of person: one who is nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious. People who don’t fit this cultural ideal respond by disengaging and rebelling.
Far from all, but many of the people who don’t fit in are boys. A decade or so ago, people started writing books and articles on the boy crisis. At the time, the evidence was disputable and some experts pushed back. Since then, the evidence that boys are falling behind has mounted. The case is closed. The numbers for boys get worse and worse.
By 12th grade, male reading test scores are far below female test scores. The eminent psychologist Michael Thompson mentioned at the Aspen Ideas Festival a few days ago that 11th-grade boys are now writing at the same level as 8th-grade girls. Boys used to have an advantage in math and science, but that gap is nearly gone.
Boys are much more likely to have discipline problems. An article as far back as 2004 in the magazine Educational Leadership found that boys accounted for nearly three-quarters of the D’s and F’s.
Some colleges are lowering the admissions requirements just so they can admit a decent number of men. Even so, men make up just over 40 percent of college students. Two million fewer men graduated from college over the past decade than women. The performance gap in graduate school is even higher.
Some of the decline in male performance may be genetic. The information age rewards people who mature early, who are verbally and socially sophisticated, who can control their impulses. Girls may, on average, do better at these things. After all, boys are falling behind not just in the U.S., but in all 35 member-nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
But the big story here is cultural and moral. If schools want to re-engage Henry, they can’t pretend they can turn him into a reflective Hamlet just by feeding him his meds and hoping he’ll sit quietly at story time. If schools want to educate a fiercely rambunctious girl, they can’t pretend they will successfully tame her by assigning some of those exquisitely sensitive Newbery award-winning novellas. Social engineering is just not that easy.
Schools have to engage people as they are. That requires leaders who insist on more cultural diversity in school: not just teachers who celebrate cooperation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honor environmental virtues, but teachers who honor military virtues; not just curriculums that teach how to share, but curriculums that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp.
The basic problem is that schools praise diversity but have become culturally homogeneous. The education world has become a distinct subculture, with a distinct ethos and attracting a distinct sort of employee. Students who don’t fit the ethos get left out.
Little Prince Hal has a lot going on inside. He’s not the unfeeling, uncommunicative, testosterone-driven cretin of common boy stereotype. He’s just inspired by a different honor code. He doesn’t find much inspiration in school, but he should.
What Brooks omitted, and we believe needs insertion into this piece, is that it is a feminist based culture that has taken over schools. And there are many reasons for that.
First, women have become extremely effective leaders within schools and school systems both in the classroom and in the principal's offices, as well as in the superintendent's offices.
Secondly, men have, for the most part, either preferred different careers with more money, status and opportunity for professional growth or were shut out by those offering teaching positions. In one northern Ontario town, for example, from 1990 to 2000, not a single male teacher was hired in the elementary panel and the situation has not likely improved much since.
Schools need a 50-50 balance of men and women as classroom teachers and as principals, superintendents and directors. And that balance has been tilted, significantly over the last two decades.
Also, classroom teachers want absolute control of their environments, and while girls are generally more compliant than boys with the imposition of strict controls, there are many important ways for teachers to release the "lid of the pressure cooker" in their individual responses and in the overall structure of the curriculum.
In some Canadian schools districts, incentives have been implemented to seek and to hire male teachers, especially in the elementary schools.
Men, in the culture, generally, have also abdicated, as men, in the face of the ridiculous lengths to which the feminist mantra and culture have gone to establish female equality. For example, I experienced a completely irrational and potentially dangerous situation a few months ago when attempting to navigate a stopped and empty car in a line for a ferry crossing, only to have a female driver of a car behind who witnessed my turning into the middle of the road, along with three or four other drivers, and came storming to my driver window to shout, "I saw what you did, and you are extremely rude!" to the entertainment of several observers.
Not content with this situation, I approached her vehicle, on the passenger side, to explain what had happened, that a driver had left his car, and we were merely moving around it in order to accommodate the obstruction.
"Would you like to know what happened?" I inquired.
"Say another word, and I will call the cops!" was her response as she picked up her cell phone.
I was so discombobulated that I reported the incident to the ferry crew who advised me to write the circumstances down in case there might be legal action.
So it is not only inside the classroom that some women have found dominance; it is also in some parts of the culture generally.
And the only group who have any chance of changing this situation, in our view, is men.
Men have to write, speak, discuss, and even risk public scorn on behalf of other men who are struggling to find both their own appropriate expression of their identity, and also to find appropriate ways to make a living.
And schools are a good place to begin. Leaving what is happening in schools to female teachers and female parents, as if education were merely a "social issue" without real significance, as many newspapers do by refusing to "front page" and thereby legitimize the issue, will not work.
The Taliban, for all the destruction they have done and continue to do, have at least brought education (if only of girls) to the front pages. Now, if only the question of male educational success were to become the kind of publicly significant issue it deserves, in all 35 OECD countries...that would mark a significant change in the world culture, and could lead to a significant reduction in our spending on "social ills" like street crime, drugs, and family upheaval.
This is one issue on which all of us need to pull hard on the oars...otherwise our boat will continue to circle in its own parochial eddy, without grappling with this cultural malaise.