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Our Schools are Bad for Boys

Are our educational institutions failing boys? It’s difficult to offer a meaningful answer to the question if we don’t have a common view of what schools are for. If schools are supposed to produce boys in K-12 who are diagnosed with communication disorders at nearly double the rate of girls the same age, then we’re doing great.

If they are supposed to expel more than double the number of boys as girls, we’re right on track. And if success means that after nine years in our education system, boys 15 to 19 years old commit suicide at nearly three times the rate of girls the same age, then America is winning the boys’ education game.

I regret to report that these examples are in fact real and demonstrate a profound cultural failure in raising boys. Schools are not the only responsible party, but they do play a significant role. And despite schools’ obvious failings, there are plenty who argue in defense of the educational approaches employed alongside these disastrous outcomes.

These statistics, and many more like them, come from an annually updated report from the American Enterprise Institute titled “For Every 100 Girls.” It reveals a grim landscape for young men, one in which the educational outcomes are bad, and the existential outcomes — like incarceration, murder and suicide — are even worse.

Richard V. Reeves of the Brookings Institution recently noted the stunningly lopsided failure of the Kalamazoo Promise, a scholarship program that covers the in-state tuition for students educated in the local K-12 system. He quoted a recent evaluation of the scholarship that found that women in the program “experienced very large gains” while “men seem to experience zero benefit.” This despite the enormous investment of resources into improving men’s outcomes. It seems that despite throwing money at the problem, it’s just not getting better.

I suggest that this general deterioration will continue regardless of how much money we shovel toward the problem; regardless of how many coaches, counselors and therapists go to work on it; regardless, essentially, of how hard we double down on what we already know does not work.

Boys are growing up in a culture that asks them to believe they do not have a masculine nature, or that if they do, it’s bad and they should apologize for it. Gender escapism that seeks to deny the sexes have fundamental natures is a current cultural/political fad that is the last thing young people need. And if they admit that boys do have a nature, most of our schools are structured implicitly or explicitly to marginalize parts of it.

For example, those parts of masculine nature that are valuable in defense and protection are sequestered to the athletic fields while the native energy and intensity in boys often sputters and is extinguished in the excessively sedentary abstraction of the classroom.

Acknowledging that we do not live in utopia, I admit that we are unlikely to eliminate dysfunction in its various forms. But the gross imbalance between girls and boys, especially in the existential arenas of incarceration, murder and suicide, seems like something we can address, and schools should help.

Let’s go out on a limb and agree that, at very least, an education should help boys and girls live lives that are peaceful and free. Of course, this will mean that students need some understanding of what the world is and especially of what human beings are and how to be good ones.

When boys grow up they will be men. In this sense, a boy’s education is preparation for manhood. In particular, education should prepare him to be a good man. We ought to be wary of educators that cannot affirm this with a straight face or who adopt politically convenient postures of pretending that masculinity does not exist and if it does, is bad.

A good education for a boy then should attempt to cultivate in him the understanding of what a good man is and the habits necessary to become one. Strength, independence, fidelity, responsibility and compassion are a few attributes of a good man that teachers should approach in three ways: model for the boys with their own behavior; study these attributes in history and literature; and provide opportunities for the boys to practice them in their own lives.

Too often, discussions about masculinity veer off into competition with femininity. I’m not saying that virtues like strength, fidelity and compassion are exclusively masculine. Possessing them doesn’t mean you’re not a good woman, but lacking them does mean you’re not a good man.

Female teachers who know what a good man is are some of the best at encouraging boys to become one, but male teachers or coaches play an indispensable role in modeling masculine behavior.

We will never solve this crisis in male education if we continue to clutch either of our cherished shibboleths: pretending on the one hand that there is no problem; and on the other hand admitting the problem and attempting to fix it by devoting more resources and doubling down on what we’re already doing.

This article first appeared in the Dallas Morning News at:


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