David Brooks wonders how Henry V, one of Shakespeare’s most appealing characters, would have fared in American schools:
By about the third week of nursery school, Henry’s teacher would be sending notes home saying that Henry “had another hard day today.” He was disruptive during circle time. By midyear, there’d be sly little hints dropped that maybe Henry’s parents should think about medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Many of the other boys are on it, and they find school much easier.
By elementary school, Henry would be lucky to get 20-minute snatches of recess. During one, he’d jump off the top of the jungle gym, and, by the time he hit the ground, the supervising teachers would be all over him for breaking the safety rules. He’d get in a serious wrestling match with his buddy Falstaff, and, by the time he got him in a headlock, there’d be suspensions all around. First, Henry would withdraw. He’d decide that the official school culture is for wimps and softies and he’d just disengage. In kindergarten, he’d wonder why he just couldn’t be good.
By junior high, he’d lose interest in trying and his grades would plummet. Then he’d rebel. If the official high school culture was über-nurturing, he’d be über-crude. If it valued cooperation and sensitivity, he’d devote his mental energies to violent video games and aggressive music. If college wanted him to be focused and tightly ambitious, he’d exile himself into a lewd and unsupervised laddie subculture. He’d have vague high ambitions but no realistic way to realize them. Day to day, he’d look completely adrift.
Henry’s experience is similar to many boys these days. Brooks suggests that “Our education system has become culturally cohesive, rewarding and encouraging a certain sort of person: one who is nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious. People who don’t fit this cultural ideal respond by disengaging and rebelling.”
In Why Boys Fail, Richard Whitmire said boys are in trouble, “However you slice the numbers–fifth-graders in special ed, ninth-graders held back, low senior grade point averages, high school dropouts, fewer college graduates–boys are performing far below girls.”
Science Daily said, “American women today are more likely to earn college degrees than men with women receiving 57 percent of all bachelor’s and 60 percent of all master’s degrees.”
“But the big story here is cultural and moral,” says Brooks. “If schools want to re-engage Henry, they can’t pretend they can turn him into a reflective Hamlet just by feeding him his meds and hoping he’ll sit quietly at story time.” He continues, “Schools have to engage people as they are. That requires leaders who insist on more cultural diversity in school: not just teachers who celebrate cooperation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honor environmental virtues, but teachers who honor military virtues; not just curriculums that teach how to share, but curriculums that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp.”
Brooks make the case for school choice–a portfolio of options that work for all families and students. One example of that Brighter Choice in Albany, the only K-12 school network (that I know of) with single-sex schools. Their performance is impressive. This is an experiment worth watching.
Online and blended learning is making it easier and more affordable to offer engaging, challenging, and affordable pathways. The potential to personalize learning for groups and individual students holds promise for addressing the crisis in educating boys.