Another Reason Why Boys Fail

Editor’s Note: Stephen Zelnick is a member of the Department of English at Temple University and co-founder of the Association for Core Texts and Courses (ACTC).

I happened to catch an interview with Richard Whitmire, author of Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That’s Leaving Them Behind. His is the latest voice in a chorus of writers who have focused attention on the weak performance of boys and young men in education. Whitmire, a capable and committed journalist, follows the social science approach of gathering statistics and then guessing at likely causes.

And the data are stunning. Boys do poorly in reading in the early grades, they fail in great numbers to graduate from high school, they go on to higher education at lower percentages than young women, and they fail to complete higher education programs at a noticeably higher rate than their female counterparts.

So many theories have been proposed for these failings that it is difficult to keep up with them. Boys’ brains don’t work right for what school does; boys’ energies are not suited to sitting still (more Ritalin, please); boys are biologically best suited to manual labor; boys lack male role models in school settings; boys see cooperative behavior as submission; boys resist cupboard-keeping neatness; and so on. Undoubtedly, these are all true, and always have been.

I would like to propose a wider perspective by looking for causes in the broad cultural environment. As a humanist who teaches literature and labors as a core curriculum and Great Books advocate, I premise my thoughts on old notions of human nature, social values, and cultural continuity.

Thus, I would add something I am not hearing in this discussion. Boys, and young men in particular, respond very well to noble purpose but haven’t had much to go on in the past fifty years of our bedraggled history. So many of the young men I see in my classes have mentally and emotionally quit, given up. They are not supported by inspiring ideals that help organize and focus their energies.

They seem prematurely weary, defeated by obstacles they haven’t met yet, bored and restless and merely going through the motions. Some have adopted the cool pose of indifference, and, indeed, they really don’t care. When I ask them where they are going with their educations, they look perplexed, as if I had awakened them from a deep sleep. Instead of a direction, they tell me a long wandering tale of possibilities, a tale told with an embarrassed smile and no conviction.

Our society has not totally forgotten about the affinity between young men and ideals of service and sacrifice. My guess is that the military’s advertising works precisely because it appeals to young men (and it is still aimed primarily at men) and their desire to serve a higher purpose and prove their valor. The football field provides another example of young men pulling together, sacrificing to win, admiring tradition, and responding powerfully to the strong-hearted guidance of a coach. However, these examples are too restricted to answer the needs of most young men, and I fear they live better as images than as sustaining realities. As far back as The Republic, Plato noted that the best leaders (he termed them “guardians”) are driven by visions of honor and service and not by dreams of gain. Our military seems still capable of producing soldiers and statesmen; I am less sure about our universities.

I am now an old codger approaching age seventy. Growing up, I could idolize sports heroes, but also scientists, and artists, and entertainers, and statesmen, and businessmen, and politicians. My sports heroes were never bigger than the games they played and were neither puffed up on mega paychecks or mega drugs. Businessmen were giants of industry and made things you could see and use, and created prosperity that improved everyone’s lot. Bankers, like judges, were noted for probity and not for manic and destructive inventiveness. Today’s celebrities run faster, express themselves with extreme energy and talent, and master the media with finesse and power never dreamed of by my heroes, but they seem not much motivated by anything other than greed. “Show me the money” is not an inspiring message for the young.

Though in my family we were reflex-Democrats, Eisenhower was viewed as a noble man, a decent and high-minded person who cared about the country and about the government that protected us. Perhaps that time was equally corrupt, but I wonder. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men was shocking because it exposed the corruption of a political figure, Willie Stark. Would Jack Burden, seeking some nobility in Willie Stark, now seem merely credulous and naïve? Whatever the facts underlying the appearances, our public stories once were honorable in substance and intent.

As a boy, I revered George Washington and was not baffled by the fact of his slave-owning or his land dealings along the Potomac, as if that was all to be known about him. I hoped I would tell the truth about despoiled cherry trees; I hoped, like Benjamin Franklin walking down Philadelphia’s Market Street as a young man on his own, that I would see the world before me as an open field of possibilities; I believed I would, like Lincoln, chase after the poor woman who forgot her three pennies because it was the right thing to do. How does a boy become a man without these inspirations?

The social and cultural atmosphere has been so polluted one wonders how young people can form life-projects that demand decency and tenacious effort. Everything seems to be for sale, and no one is ashamed by it. The fix is in on the Left and the Right in Washington. Turpitude in the coal and oil industry, with their locust hosts of lobbyists to protect them from those who would protect the environment, is an old story. The new stories are about agri-business and healthcare and education, and now even the green NGOs that take big bucks to moderate their advocacy. 

A recent National Public Radio interview featured a sexual dominatrix who earned praise from the interviewer for her entrepreneurial inventiveness. College campuses promote celebrations of sex and invite young men and women to share the dorm and each other. State and local governments pay their bills by sponsoring gambling and constructing casinos (when those are exhausted, is prostitution next?). No politician aspires to courage, or risks moral conviction; it seems to have become a great game for small prizes. Our wars appear to be not only immoral but also pragmatic embarrassments—founded on lies, blood, power, and profits.  Young men can be excused for pondering whether ours is a wicked nation, or a stupid one.

In the “boys fail” discussion, girls enter as victims suffering from a lack of suitable life partners. The crisis now faced by well-educated African-American women in finding similarly high-attaining mates among African-American males is projected to the population as a whole. If women constitute nearly 60 percent of the four-year college population and graduate at a higher percentage than men, the future looks bleak for marital parity—and bliss.

I am seeing more aggressive young women and fewer aggressive young men in my classes. Unlike their female counterparts, young men tend not to complain about unpleasant grades and do not chase every stray GPA point in petty obsession to excel. Young women, praised for being strong and belittled for perpetuating weakness, cheer for King Lear’s Goneril and Regan and believe Cordelia is a wimp. This is not good for the future of couples, and it is not good for women. Without the restraint of shame, the encouragement of honor, and the inspiration of noble purpose, none of us can lead fulfilling and happy lives.

Young men are more uncertain about sex and marriage than ever. Women have been coached to take the lead and to think they need men “about as much as fish need bicycles.” They no longer seem to seek male protection and support. Our films and books and TV stories counsel the foolishness of depending on those expectations.

This shift to the narratives of distrust robs men of their edge and purpose. Historically, men have been ennobled as protectors and have justified their hard work and sacrifice as heads of families and protectors of their communities.  Without that aspiration, young males can aspire to be earners and consumers and lonely foragers in the sexual forest, but that is not the same thing as being men.

Every time we hear yet another tale of mendacity from our muddied public life, our young suffer and education is driven down to a shoddy business of getting ahead. We end up with cynical business majors on the one hand, and the slackers on the other, both defeated by the atmosphere of unapologetic greed and self-promotion. We pay a heavy price in all our institutions, from poisoned food to dilapidated infrastructure to our ridiculous political circuses.  How can education, this delicate flowering of culture, not be a front-line casualty?