‘I’ ON CULTURE
At a time when media reports describe the downfall of public school systems, some of the real issues get at least somewhat overlooked. Time recently had an article from Christina Hoff Sommers pointing out that in most schools, boys are no more than targets. Her main theme is that boys are treated like defective girls. Unfortunately, that leads to far more suspensions for boys, often for minor things, and many boys fall behind in their studies, uninterested in school. Many schools are failing boys, and that is one factor leading to the collapse of public school systems.
As a former high school teacher, I recognize that Sommers has valid points. I enjoyed working with well-behaved female students. They were polite and respectful. Their homework usually came in on time. They raised their hands at least some of the time. All of that made me feel successful. Boys were far more of a wild card: some behaved and did their work as well as the girls, but others were quite challenging. The smart ones put up good arguments, and after a while, I came to enjoy them. I generally won because I usually knew more than they did. Social studies is a great area for that; I read a lot and had been doing so for years. But many of the questions were good ones and forced me to think. As I grew older, I began to realize that it was those more aggressive, intelligent boys who forced me to rethink my assumptions and often caused changes in my lessons. Of course, the boys who were not as smart were often a pain.
The real problem in our schools, however, is centered on the early grades. In recent decades, there have been very few male teachers. The feminization of elementary schools has left boys in bad shape.
The idea that boys are different from girls, and not just because of their plumbing, is often rejected. But when we grasp the idea that many current elementary schools are designed by women for future women, it becomes clear that they are often not meeting the needs of boys. Recess has been sharply curtailed, even though boys need more time running around. Many of the basic games they played years ago are now out because they are considered too competitive, too open for possible bullying or possibly leaving schools open to lawsuits. And as boys get restless, they get into trouble. As recess time shrinks, diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder increase.
Another issue is that reading materials are often selected by women. Males and females have different interests. Girls like fiction; boys like nonfiction. They like different kinds of stories. Yet overwhelmingly, reading choices are focused on the interests of girls. Female teachers, never having been male, look at lists made up by other females about what boys should like. And they are often wrong, and the boys turn off.
Another problem is that boys, particularly those who are restless and bored, can get into minor scrapes. I have written about kids suspended for pointing fingers at each other as if they are shooting or for biting pastries in ways that make them, in the eyes of teachers, look like guns. One boy was remanded for psychological testing because he drew a picture of sword fighting. Did that mean he was dangerous? More likely it meant he was a boy.
As someone who will become the grandfather of a boy in a few months, I have a great deal of concern about his future when he goes to school, even some of the good ones here in the western communities. The problem is becoming larger and is one reason for the rapid growth of charter schools. As I drive around, I see several buildings going up for these schools in an area where we have schools rated “A.” I spoke to one charter school founder who told me that concerned parents want changes, often for their sons.
At a time when school systems are struggling to survive, we need change. New Orleans no longer has a regular school system: All its children are in charter or private schools. To prevent similar collapses, one change has to focus on improving performance by our boys. If not, parents will opt out of the regular system, and that could lead to its destruction.