How About Some Books for Our Sons?

Sorry, I know this is quite a long article but I read this article a couple of months ago in Esquire magazine and it just speaks so well to the problems in our society with young men. Especially, since our sons are getting locked up and dropping out of school at epidemic proportions!

I think his point about very little new literature for boys is so on point. I know from experience that shopping for books for young boys is truly hard, with the exception of the fantasy genre there are hardly any good books out there for boys/young men.


The Problem with Boys …

Is actually a problem with men. We’ve ignored all the evidence of male achievement and ambition deficits and stood aside as our sons have notched a growing record of failure and disengagement. It’s time we did something about it. A call to action.

By Tom Chiarella

I HAVE TWO SONS. One is sixteen, the other thirteen. Like any boys, they are a little too muscular in their expectations from life. In a single evening, they can be sullen, sweet, hurtful, gentle, distant, funny, and full of grit. Tonight I dropped the younger one at soccer practice dressed all in yellow. Yellow sweatshirt, yellow jersey, yellow shorts, yellow kneesocks. “I just wish I had yellow shoes,” he told me when he got out. “That would be the topper.” Both spend hours watching reruns of Jackass. One likes shooting baskets; the other likes watching anime. One goes to summer camp; the other doesn’t. Lately, they both have begun to talk about bands that I have never heard of. They murmur to each other so that I am just out of earshot. They want their laundry done for them. They never clear their dishes or make their beds. They love their grandparents, but they never send them thank-you notes. They both still expect me to kiss them goodnight. They are boys. They know I am writing this article. I’ve been wanting to write it for years. Here’s what I tell them: I am worried about boys.

I’VE TAUGHT AT THE SAME MIDWESTERN liberal-arts college for the past seventeen years. I was chair of one of the largest departments on campus for five years. I like working there. It has a distinguished faculty and an excellent academic program; it’s a fine little school. I say this because I want to be clear that I am not a malcontent, that I am not some tenured jackass dying to bite the hand that feeds me. I’m just a little worried about boys. About ten years ago, university GPA statistics started crossing my desk, because I was the department chair, and I wondered aloud why men at our college generally received lower grades than women. The pattern was consistent, almost lockstep. Women’s average GPA was as much as a quarter of a point higher than men’s some semesters. Were just smarter? Did they just work harder? It made a certain amount of sense.

Female students have always seemed more focused to me, more comfortable with interpretation, more fluid in their ability to enter discussion. When it came to boys, I could often see their disengagement in the classroom. They fidgeted. They slouched. They sat in the back of the room, hidden behind the brims of their baseball caps.

About this same time, I began to notice something else. The enrollment of men at our university was slipping. It is a fact of life at colleges today that women outnumber men. It certainly is at my school, where last year’s freshman class was 42 percent male. In any given year, I would call this small potatoes. In 1979, when women surpassed women in college enrollment, I would have called it a triumph. More than twenty years later, as the numbers pile up, it begins to feel as if something, somewhere, is out of balance. I’m often told that there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for this, that the larger share of women in colleges today reflects, in part the imbalance in the larger population. I looked that one up.

There are indeed more woman around than men, but it turns out males make up 51.5 percent of the population of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds – the college-going age. They just die faster. The shift I noticed reinforced itself in subtler ways. I watched as my colleagues expressed an increasing disdain for men in the classroom. I listened as they moaned about seminars that happened to be made up mostly of men. I went to faculty lunches dealing with disruptive students, only to realize that what we were talking about was primarily male behavior, that men themselves were in some fashion perceived to be the disruption. Men who seemed to have an answer for every question. Men who didn’t listen. Men who radiated indifference. Men who griped about reading lists sometimes dominated by women authors. Men who resisted the authority of the teacher.

In the middle of one of these lunches, I leaned over and told a friend, “What we’re talking about here is boys.” I meant the students weren’t men yet, that they hadn’t yet figured out what mattered. My friend shook her head. “Not really,” she said. “Some of these are girls who act like boys.” I watched as nearly every significant social problem was laid at the feet of the male student population: sexual violence, binge drinking, hazing, anti-intellectualism, homophobia, bullying. I have to say it didn’t seem unfair to talk about the role of boys in these issues. High time, actually. I was on board. On the whole, boys do seem unfocused to me, a whole lot dimmer in their sense of their path in the world. Everything about them that is male- their physicality, their hunger for stimulation, their propensity to argue-seemed clipped by the academic world I lived in. I was not waiting for the birth of a men’s movement so much as I was looking for a little discussion, a chance to engage boys in the same way women engaged girls forty years ago.

What did my university do in the face of these problems? It formed a task force on the status of women. Its finding? That the university needed a women’s center to augment its twenty-year-old women’s-studies program. THERE IS SOMETHING ODD and forbidden about the word boy. Typing it feels a little creepy, almost pornographic. Boy. A little word, naked and weak, an iconic expression of smallness, of vulnerability. The boy alone. Scraggled hair, upward glance, the smear of ketchup on his chin. Cute maybe, but defenseless, naive, insulated, and unaware. A boy doesn’t have a clue. There’s something equally forbidden about arguing the ongoing boys crisis. It’s a loser. It doesn’t sell. It doesn’t translate as much more than a hobbyhorse for conservative think tanks.

But here’s the deal if you are a boy in this country right now: You’re twice as likely as a girl to be diagnosed with an attention-deficit or learning disorder. You’re more likely to score worse on standardized reading and writing tests. You’re more likely to be held back in school. You’re more likely to drop out of school. If you do graduate, you’re less likely to go to college. If you do go to college, you will get lower grades and, once again, you will be less likely to graduate. You’ll be twice as likely to abuse alcohol, and until you are twenty-four, you are five times as likely to kill your self. You are more than sixteen times as likely to go to prison. “As long as ten years ago, we started seeing the data that showed boys were slipping behind,” says Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, an advocacy group for low-income and minority students. “People were still arguing: We don’t have a boys problem, we have a girls problem. It just didn’t match what these data say. There’s still a lot of resistance among rank-and-file educators.”

The growing achievement gap between boys and girls has landed in our laps. Fueled by slim percentages in some cases, the numbers are stacking up over time. We’re faced with the accrual of a significant population of boys who aren’t well prepared for either school or work. “The problem,” says Haycock,”is what this will add up to in twenty years.”

THERE’S A BOY NAMED QUINN who lives on my street who just turned eighteen. I’ve known him since he was three. These days, he’s preparing to go to college. By most measures, he’s been well served by his education. He’s in the top 10 percent of his class, and his board scores are excellent. He is a talented, self-taught guitarist, a decent basketball player, and a national-caliber high jumper. Last week he cleared six feet nine inches, higher than the doorjambs in my house. I sometimes look at those doors and picture Quinn sliding over the top of them. By most measures, he’s a boy who wouldn’t show up as any sort of alarming statistic: no disciplinary issues; he doesn’t drink or use drugs. He’s what you would call a good kid.

When I ask him how school is in these final days, he gives me the same answer he’s given me since first grade: “Okay.” He stretches the word out, long o, resigned k. It’s always like this when I talk to boys. He is enduring it, waiting it out. I’m always interested in what boys are reading. Last time I asked, he sighed. “Jane Eyre.” I cringe and try to think of something to say. It’s a great book that meant nothing to me until I was thirty-three and teaching it for the third time. “I wrote a paper in college about Jane Eyre,” I say out loud, but that’s before I can locate in my memory what that paper was about. Then it comes to me. “About a chestnut tree,” I say. “I remember that much.” Quinn hold his hands out, palms up. What can he do?

His father shakes his head. They are readers, this family. “It’s a good book,” he says. The idea is to stick with it. To finish. He’s role-modeling. It’s what men do. “But you’d think they’d stick a little Slaughterhouse-Five in there.” Quinn stares at us and shrugs. He has nothing more to say. His face is not blank. The kid has a heart. He likes standing there with us. When he gets out of school, I tell him, he’ll be able to read the things he loves. We are silent then. Three men with Jane Eyre hanging between us.

BEFORE JUNIOR HIGH, I always liked school. It felt like a place that belonged to me, was set up for me, a place that I owned in some fashion. Sitting in a classroom now with Joel Klein, the chancellor of New York City schools, it occurs to me that he must really feel that way. The room sits in the Tweed Courthouse in lower Manhattan, his office two floors above. Classes from around the city rotate in and out every two weeks. Klein, a former antitrust lawyer for the Clinton administration who took over the city’s schools in 2002, visits often. “People try to separate out how much of this is a general boy- girl thing versus how much resides in subgroups,” Klein says. “

In New York City, it’s quite clearly a boy-girl thing. Eleven percent more women graduate than men, consistent across the major racial and ethnic groups. It’s a huge number. That’s a lot of kids.” He’s ready to show me charts reflecting different achievement rates at different grade levels. We run through them, one column to the next, but it feels rote to me. The numbers are enervating. A couple percentage points here, a couple there. I stop him. I want to take a look at the classroom library, so we walk. Once I’m turning the pages of a book on Lewis and Clark, I hook a finger back toward the pile of charts.

“What does it all add up to?” I ask. Klein picks up a book on Peter the Great and tilts his head. “What you see is a story about problems with literacy, with reading, that develop into a consistent increase in dropouts and lower graduation rates.” The numbers, he says, show a literacy gap between boys and girls from fourth grade through twelfth. “We need to find things they will read.”

Klein sighs: “I remember how I read. It was very powerful. I read all of John R. Tunis’s books about baseball. I went forward with that. I took it to Jude the Obscure and Dostoyevsky. That’s the kind of connection you cannot predict. Sports led me to literature.” He speaks of the way he pictured himself as a boy, then a man. “I thought of myself as a ballplayer. Then as a ballplayer/lawyer. Then, finally, just a lawyer. That was the way I went. We have to find paths.”

I’m thinking about Quinn then, how happy he seemed when he talked about reading articles about music, about how much he liked the books he chose for himself, like Get Shorty. “When I was a kid,” Klein says, “we had this view of education that the teacher stood up there, taught, and tried to keep each kid in the same place. Boys and girls. All the same. Each grade was a sort of franchise, with the same product. We’ve learned that we have to tailor to the individual student. Boys are different. We have to get comfortable with that difference. Quickly.”

It occurs to me that it must be odd for Klein to have come from the world of intellectual property rights, a world where meetings were surely overpopulated by men, to parent meetings like the one he describes to me: “A school auditorium. A room of forty people. Two men. Very typical. I told both men, You have to go out and find two more men to come to the next meeting, then they tell two more. I give people an assignment. It’s how I work. Two more men. I just start with two more men.”

THERE’S A BOY NAMED GERALD who’s twenty-two who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana, with my girlfriend’s daughter. He’s had his own set of grim struggles: drugs, alcohol, an absent father. In some ways, he’s like most boys at first-withdrawn, a little sullen, his eyes on the horizon. When he can separate his anger from the gist of what he’s feeling, I’ve known him to be witty, intelligent, kind. But how long can that last? He did not return to high school after being expelled his junior year and now scrambles from one gig to the next. Sometimes he makes panels for car doors or takes a job roofing for a few weeks or hangs drywall.

Every time he gets hired, they lay him off before he gets benefits, or he fails a drug test, or he just gets fired. I worry. If he doesn’t have a car, he can’t get to work. If he can’t get to work, he can’t keep a car. He can’t do any better than a job where they hire him for a week or two, tease him with belonging, then toss him out. This gives him no chance to advance, no chance to supervise, no chance to grow in any sort of trade. He’s got no way to grab on to the culture of work. Nowhere to go, except Iraq maybe. They keep raising the bonus for enlistment; they keep tempting him to put himself in the mix. I always think he’s a bag of flesh to them, a bullet stopper. But it must cross his mind. He’s got to be mad. He’s got to be hurting. I’m always afraid to ask. I’m always afraid of what my own advice would be.

I AM IN KANSAS CITY, Missouri, on my way to see the commanding general of the U. S. Army Combined Arms Center. I’m staying at the airport Radisson, eating room service during a tornado warning, watching Kundun, the story of the Dalai Lama’s childhood in Tibet. It’s like that these days. Everywhere I look, there’s another boy staring back at me. The Dalai Lama was a wildly curious boy-about cars, movies, machines, traveling. He laughs, he fidgets, he stares off into the distance. I imagine he farts for pleasure. He hungers for other places. And I’m thinking about how much the monks seemed to like him, to tolerate him as a boy. They were both his followers and his leaders. And how being a boy, just being allowed to prosper as a boy, made him the greatest man-gentle and smart, kind and ballsy. I can still see the boy inside the man I know now. Then the electricity goes out.

The next morning I drive to Fort Leavenworth, where Lieutenant General David Petraeus waits for me. I’ve never been to a military base in my life, although I took military-history courses in college, only because I wanted to squeeze money out of ROTC. I’m not sure what I was expecting. Dust, I guess. Huge lots where men and women march in formation. But the base looks more like a turn-of-the-last-century college campus, replete with cottages and dormitories. There is an order to the comings and goings that one might expect but an inclusiveness I find surprising. Men shake hands. People wave. Guys in camouflage push strollers. “There’s a kind of embrace to the military,” General Petraeus says after hearing what I felt coming in. “Done right, the connections are similar to a family.”

This man has six pages of handwritten notes and twenty pages of research, all balanced on his knee. He reads through his comments precisely but fields my questions as they come. He’s an academic, too, having taught international relations at West Point for two years. He had a meeting on this subject with several staff members before I arrived. “I wanted to do a little thinking before we talked. It’s urgent, but I can’t say I have a simple answer.” I tell him about the boys I know, about how I’m concerned that the Army may be the only option for a kid like Gerald. “That’s the problem,” he says. “It may not be an option for him. We have a profile we’re looking for; we need high school graduates who are physically fit and driven by the desire for self-improvement. We need men who are prepared to be better soldiers.

“I see the same things you do. The numbers are declining among boys,” he says, clearing his throat. “I always call them men. I’m concerned in three respects: as a citizen, as an educator, as a military officer. As a citizen, there’s a keen recognition that our competitiveness is defined by the education of our workforce. Beyond that, as a teacher, I can see that it’s not just economic growth we’re talking about; it’s overall quality of life, the balance of the society itself. I always keep in mind that quality of political discourse depends on an educated electorate. You have to try to construct a culture with great care. That’s what we do in the military. There is the sense here that every individual can be the decisive person in a key point, in a key situation. It’s a sense of ownership and connection that isn’t provided elsewhere.” I ask him about a solution, about a direction for boys.

He corrects me: “It’s men.” I think for a moment that he means using the term to refer to boys, but he doesn’t. The answer, he means, is men. “What boys need,” he says, “are role models, parental supervision, encouragement to pursue excellence in all that they do, especially in education, where we must do whatever is necessary to keep them in school. They need direction to stay on the straight and narrow, a push to participate in athletics and extracurricular activities, help to pursue a healthy lifestyle, recognition that they must be accountable for their actions, and reinforcement of good performance.”

But how do we do that? The adults. The men. What’s our end? “We have to embrace mentoring,” he says, “and we have to be conscious role models. Parents, teachers, coaches, bosses all have to do what leaders do-give energy and encouragement to those who soldier for them. And young men undoubtedly need that more than any other group in America. Indeed, if we can get them through the years during which they’re particularly vulnerable, they often will flourish.” I shrug. I’m a little skeptical. Mentoring seems more like a buzzword than a real practice. “It has to be very conscious,” he says. “I have dozens of young officers I mentor. I typically call several each month on Saturday mornings and e-mail the others.

We actually schedule the Saturday-morning calls.” When I ask if he has role models of his own, in this embrace he speaks of, he snaps off a list of ten names. Generals, teachers, coaches. There is not one among them I recognize, but he clearly knows each one for a different reason, for a different aspect of his own need. “I have to trust people who’ve been there before me,” he says. “It’s not a hard thing to learn because of its inherent value. But it’s not a part of the larger culture of boys. They don’t ask for help enough to know that it’s there.”

ONE MORNING LAST WEEK, two of the senior boys in my class came in with bandages on their hands. When I asked, as is my way, what happened, they smiled wryly. “Bloody Knuckles,” said one. The other one laughed and peeled back his Band-Aid. “I was bleeding pretty bad,” he said. I started in on them, haranguing them about the stupidity of potentially breaking bones in their hands weeks before they took jobs. As I was saying this stuff, I was thinking it was my own version of mentoring. But I can remember playing Bloody Knuckles. It was risky and fun. It felt good in the marrow just to think about it again. “I think we should have an Olympics of games guys play,” said one.

They immediately started making a list. Two of them gathered, then three, then four. I watched as they listed out the events: Towel Battle. Leg Wrestling. King of the Buckets. Bloody Knuckles. Human Jousting. Six-Inch Punching. Indian Wrestling. Knee Football. Hand Slapper. Rock, Paper, Scissors. Slap Boxing. Pelts. I both know these games and don’t. I remember playing them but can’t remember the rules. We laughed as we read the list aloud, as the boys in the class demonstrated each event. These are the games you weren’t allowed to play at recess, the games your mother warned you about. Each involves some measure of violence, some risk. The point is always to make the other guy fall or hurt, bleed or flip over, lose. Boys do this.

They knock one another down. They hurt one another. Then they laugh and shake it off. Their joy in relating each game was tangible. Soon they came up with a notion that this should be a campus-wide event: the Brolympics. And the idea had currency for a moment, the filling of some anomalous need that no man in the room could put a name to. But it was an absurdity, mostly, to consider this. We laughed at the audaciousness of it, the ludicrousness of letting boys be boys, of ramping up maleness in the center of campus, where maleness is only tolerated. They made up a poster, but the idea died under our laughter. This is a school after all. A college. We know how things go.

I’M A LITTLE WORRIED about boys, so lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what can be done to help them. I’ve been griping, to my friends mostly, for a decade about something I’ve felt in my gut. Every time an article on a perceived boys crisis appears, there is a backlash, a rehashing of the numbers, a recasting of the crisis.

Get this much straight: Things are much worse for black boys, for Latino boys, than they are for white ones. And for poor boys as well. I see that clearly. But why such great resistance to the idea that the problem may be that boys-all boys-have lost their foothold, their sense of a linear future, a path in the world? Why does maleness even matter if all we do is resist and undermine it in our schools? “The masculine impulse is limits testing, even self-destructive. We don’t want to extinguish it,” Camille Paglia, feminist critic and cultural provocateur, told me when I called. “In the age of terrorism, who will defend us? Young jihadists sure aren’t tempering their masculinity. Americans are in unilateral gender disarmament.”

I don’t think there is a gender war. I don’t think there is any war on boys really. It’s not that conscious. It’s more like a great forgetting. The women’s movement was about making room for women, and the numbers show, in schools at least and in the workplace to some extent, that we have. The gains of girls, Kati Haycock points out, are “the result of a couple of generations of advocacy on the part of women, and girls getting the message that anything is possible. It’s a result of women constantly being reminded that they have to watch out for their financial well-being, and they could do this through schools.

Women got that message. They are still getting it. That’s what’s owed the boys. It’s a matter of generational focus. We have no goals asking educators to pay attention to boys, nothing really concrete. The record shows that when we really concentrate on something like this, we tend to have progress.” We don’t have to feel threatened by the gains girls have made. We need to study them, to use them as a model for boys. The solution may be to grab on to that which is male and use it as a means to fix the problem rather than as a symptom of it. In the classroom, there’s ample evidence that certain changes could help boys prosper. They like to do their work in bite-sized chunks. They need differing levels of activity, often tied to some element of competition or short-term goal. They tend to gravitate toward nonfiction in their reading-more facts, shorter pieces. They need physical activity, too, up to four recesses a day, to stay focused. We also have to think about the way boys put the world together outside the classroom.

In England, gaps in achievement have been attributed, in part, to what is known as laddishness. Since boys tend to run in packs, their values are defined by the boys who lead them. There’s a sort of antiestablishment disaffection passed from boy to boy, a sense that school doesn’t matter. Educators there used that pattern as a means to reinvent it. They used intensely focused mentorship, aimed at the pack leaders, to break down these attitudes, cracking into the structures that keep boys distant from school. Women forced the issue with girls. Men have to do the same with boys. As it is now, men don’t even have the language to discuss what it means to be male. Forget the Right and the Left. I am as skeptical of character training, championed by conservatives as the answer to the crisis, as I am scornful of sensitivity training, which put our classrooms in their current posture. We don’t need a new orthodoxy.

We need a deeper sense of involvement. Men have to be willing to care about the way boys are being treated, taught, and cared for in this country and advocate for them. Find the books that boys read-they are out there-and make sure they are in the libraries and under the Christmas trees. If the classrooms don’t work, men must be in the schools-at the PTA meetings, at parent-teacher conferences, in front of school boards, in classes teaching or just talking about their jobs. Young men, men without children, must take a stake and volunteer to coach, to counsel, to read to kids. You can’t wait for fatherhood to hit you in the face. Men whose children are grown must mentor a new generation of children. Select two boys, the ones who need it, the ones you know are hurting.

Take a lesson from Joel Klein and convince two more men to do the same. Two more men: That’s your assignment. Go talk to boys. You don’t have to use baby talk with them or buy them things. You just have to listen to them. Ask them who they are. The answers they give may not always make sense, but talk to enough of them and you will surely realize that boys themselves are not the problem. And it sure as hell isn’t women or girls. The problem is men.

Who’s Doing Something?

Not everyone has turned a blind eye to the boys crisis. Here are four organizations devoted to fixing the problem.

Guys Read

Jon Scieszka, a children’s-book author and former elementary school teacher, wants to make reading interesting and fun for boys. His engaging Web site recommends guy-friendly books to young readers.

The Boys Project

Organized this year by a University of Alaska psychology professor, this consortium of educators and researchers hopes to spur federal and state-funded initiatives to increase boys’ academic skills and increase their ambition.

Raising and Educating Healthy Boys Project

The Educational Equity Center of the Academy for Educational Development created this program to study gender expectations, raise awareness among educators and parents of how they may be inadvertently limiting boys, and brainstorm solutions.

Citizen Schools

Though not targeted just to boys, this organization, operating in twenty-two middle schools nationwide, seeks to engage students through the kind of experiential learning, such as apprenticeships with volunteers, that males tend to respond to. Victor Ozols contributed to the reporting of this story and provided invaluable analysis.

© 2006 by Hearst Communications Inc.

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