Four years ago, psychologist Leonard Sax (M.D., Ph.D.) 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, but 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 some 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.