top of page

Principles for Educating Boys

Updated: Sep 21, 2022

A few years ago, a friend of mine gave me a handsomely framed print of a painting by the 19th Century American artist Eastman Johnson. The painting is called “The Boyhood of Abraham Lincoln” and shows a young Lincoln, perhaps thirteen years old, reading a book by firelight in a rough-finished cabin. The occasion for this gift was the successful launch of a new classical boarding school, St. Martin’s Academy, which I co-founded with a friend of mine and for which I served as founding headmaster. The painting was particularly apt for the occasion since our school in rural Kansas served high school aged young men and combined a classical curriculum with manual labor on a small sustainable farm. There was much in the Lincoln painting that resonated with our educational aspirations—not least the wholesome simplicity of the setting and the intensity with which the young Lincoln leaned toward the light of the fire in his eagerness to read.


Sadly, eagerness and intensity do not describe the attitude of most boys today toward education. On the contrary, countless young men resent school, and in many cases, for good reason. It has become commonplace for schools to marginalize wholesome masculinity instead of training and developing it. This marginalization takes different shapes in different schools but generally includes the following attributes which I will explain below: compartmentalization of the curriculum rather than integration; valorization of the sedentary at the expense of the physical; bureaucratic rather than charismatic disciplinary approaches; and the prominence of screen learning rather than experiential learning outdoors. It may not be obvious, but each of these contribute to an educational environment that fails to engage and inspire boys and in which they are asked to act in ways contrary to their nature.


We built St. Martin’s Academy to model a boy-friendly approach to education based on a few key principles. And while St. Martin’s Academy was built to enact these principles, they translate readily to a variety of school, homeschool, and family settings.


First, young men need to study difficult and beautiful things in an environment where they are regularly engaged in hard manual labor. This occurs through a school environment and classical curriculum that integrates classes with one another and with the rest of the boys’ lives.

Biology and chemistry correspond not only to each other through a thoughtfully choreographed curricular progression, but also to the dairy operations the boys engage in during daily chores.

Mathematics and physics aid and illuminate the shop work of planning and building chicken coops or canoes.


Literature, history and philosophy ennoble and deepen their relationships with one another, their leadership roles within the labor program, and their relationship with nature and their creator.


Teachers who understand this integration draw the boys’ attention to it and demonstrate it in their own lives. Nothing in the students’ educational experience stands in isolation begging the pragmatic question boys love to ask: When will I ever use this?


Second, boys’ bodies are an essential ingredient in their education, and should be included in what is typically considered “classroom work.” Mothers usually understand this point intuitively: boys are not disembodied intellects, but actually translate physical experiences into concepts quickly and memorably. For the teacher, it simply takes a little imagination to involve students’ bodies in their lessons. Singing, recitation and dramatization can all occur in a classroom. Hiking, wrestling, and swimming, artfully woven throughout a couple weeks of reading a classic like The Odyssey, will train the boys’ attention and memory to essential facts and themes that are nearly impossible to develop through simple lecturing. It may not sound quite boring enough to count as education, but the results are stunning.


Third, boys need to be given real responsibilities, and responsibility is not real if it does not matter — that is to say, if others do not depend on it. Boys can smell busy work a mile away and rightly resent it as something that does not matter. This is one of the fastest ways to lose a young man’s trust and make an opponent out of a student.


Real responsibilities are chores like feeding animals, milking cows, or repairing things used in common. If you fail to do your part, something dies or breaks. Boys thrive in environments like this where they are needed and respected for the part they play. And if all this talk of responsibility sounds heavy-handed, remember that unself-conscious play is not only a boy’s birthright, but is crucial to developing his imagination and cultivating his ideals.


Two of the worst things to do to a young man are to flatter him or to hold low expectations for him.


When discipline is bureaucratic rather than personal, boys cannot respect it. They recognize more clearly than most of us that the bureaucratic is not essential. They recognize it as a veneer over the essential thing which always comes down to a point of honor among friends. This is what I mean by discipline that is charismatic rather than bureaucratic.


Finally, screens and other electronic devices should have almost no place in a boy’s education. They insulate from reality rather than providing appropriate exposure to it and thereby deprive the boy of crucial experiences when he is young.


Screens masquerade as experience but can never fully satisfy a boy’s desire for meaningful physical work and play. They simultaneously entice and exhaust and are widely acknowledged to be highly addictive.


Give the boys a chance to develop a healthy relationship with the real world, then they can learn to use prudently whatever tools their profession will require of them.


Instead of screens, true education for boys should include work and play in the outdoors. Experience in the outdoors is not just a nice enrichment for boys’ education, but increasingly a missing, though fundamental, ingredient. No amount of lecturing or reading, however good, will cause learning to take full root in one whose contact with the real is always mediated by a screen rather than through his integrated five senses interacting with the book of nature.


Educating boys is difficult in the best way. They watch us like hawks, are responsive to our every move, and are allergic in the extreme to the subtlest forms of hypocrisy. This means, for our part, that we must lead lives of exemplary virtue; that we must extend the gift of friendship to them and hold them accountable for its cultivation; that we must risk entrusting responsibilities of real value to their care; and that we must model healthy stewardship over our technological devices and natural resources.


If these sound like daunting ideals, remember that if we strive for anything less, so will they.




Comentarios


Los comentarios se han desactivado.
bottom of page