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LITTLE BOY BLUE REVISITED

We’ve had a lot of responses to our series of blogs detailing the grim picture for boys and men in America today. Now columnist, educator, and former First Lady of Colorado Dottie Lamm has picked up the torch in “Our Boys Are Falling Behind in Education” (Denver Post, April 18, 2010).

She begins with this preamble:

“What’s the next battle for an aging feminist?

Boys.

Granted, the battle for women’s rights and equality has not been completely won, but the new reality is that in the future, it will be males who are most endangered.”

She concurs with the findings in one of my earlier blogs: That since by 2017 (only seven years from now) the ratio of female to male graduates will be 1 ½ to 1, we’re already in the midst of a terrible crisis, and notes that though women have lobbied for generations for their rights and talents to be recognized, they most certainly weren’t lobbying for a complete role reversal, where they’re predicted to “reign supreme in all fields but the sciences.”

And women, she feels, have not even begun to internalize the fallout from such a seismic shift. So she poses this rhetorical question: “How many college-educated women today would want to marry a man with such low educational achievement skills or ambition that he would be permanently relegated to the role of full-time ‘homemaker’—not by choice, but by default?”

Then Lamm turns to causes, and refers to issues I’ve spent most of my adult lifetime studying. Both of us are convinced that we’re now paying the price for forcing our kids into reading and verbal exercises at an ever earlier age. We used to wait until they were seven or eight, but for several generations now we’ve been forcing them into early-learning kindergartens before they—especially boys—are ready for it. Lamm points out that, generally speaking, “the verbal parts of boys’ brains do not develop to capacity until fourth or fifth grade.” Furthermore, brain-scans reveal that the language area of 3 ½-year-old girls mirrors that of 5-year-old boys.”

We both agree: What results from immersing boys into verbal instruction at such an early age is that we set them up for almost certain failure. When girls their own age can run circles around them in classwork, the wounds to boys’ sense of self-worth can be so deep and long-lasting that they just plain give up, convicted that they’re just plain dumb; that nothing they can possibly do will be enough to enable them to reach performance parity with girls. Quite simply, it’s the Dunce Syndrome all over again: Tell a child enough times that he’s dumb, and it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Studies have also shown that small children’s eyes find it difficult to focus on print. On the other hand, boys are wired for action from birth on. That’s why the best thing we can do for them is let them roam the great out-of-doors free of regimentation during the first seven or eight years of their lives. Instead of Gameboys and videos, they ought to be outside climbing trees, wading in creeks, playing in a sandpile. Our own son Greg, just turned seven, was not quite ready for first grade work, so we pulled him out until he was almost eight—by that time he was so ready he raced through two grades in one year.

Studies have shown that children who are force-fed too soon (many are pushed into reading as early as three or four so that they’ll get a head-start over the others) invariably are passed later on by those who were permitted to begin schooling at a later age. Furthermore, those who start too young get burned out earlier than those who wait.

Lamm notes that “boys are far more likely to be held back a grade in fourth grade and then again in ninth grade, an action that promotes a suspension rate for boys that is twice as high as that of girls. This in turn leads to a male dropout rate of 32 percent compared to 25 percent for females.”

And let’s face it, girls remain considerably more mature than boys through college and later. I had 34 years of classroom experience in which to compare the two genders. Believe me, it was no contest: the average coed was about three years ahead maturity-wise, far more ready to tackle serious issues such as marriage and long-term commitment than were the males. But males do eventually catch up—usually by the late twenties or early thirties.

Lamm feels it’s almost criminal that we as a society have failed to do a thing about a problem of this magnitude, pointing out that the U.S. Department of Education “has yet to launch a single probe into the gender gap.”

Lamm concludes with these revealing words: “If a man’s movement develops for boys, I’ll join it. And, as an aging feminist, I’ll still fight to take big chunks out of that glass ceiling for women. But as a grandmother of three young boys, I’m going to do my darndest to keep young boys from sinking into that academic mud floor.”

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THE CHILD IS FATHER OF THE MAN

“My heart leaps up when I behold
       A rainbow in the sky:
So it was when my life began;
So it is now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old.
     Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man.”
                 —Wordsworth

The child is also, of course, father, mother, of the woman.

When we consider the fact that half of what we learn in life takes place before we ever step foot into a formal classroom, it makes little sense to continue blaming our schools for our plunging test scores.   For several generations now (not coincidentally, beginning with the introduction of television in American homes after World War II), literacy test-scores have been in free-fall; so much so that our nation has dropped out of the company of the leading nations of the world and now finds itself in embarrassing third-world company literacy-wise.

Somewhere during the last three generations, the intellectual, moral, and spiritual education of our children has taken a back-seat to creature comforts and ever larger homes.  Paradoxical, isn’t it, that at the very time our homes are getting ever larger (larger than is true of any other nation on earth), the parenting/educating within those homes has proportionally decreased.  At an ever earlier age, we shove our children out of the house into child-care facilities and kindergartens. All this to avoid the God-given responsibility to be there for our child.

For each day, each moment, our pre-school child is becoming.  Never again in his/her lifetime will growth occur at such blinding speed.  Indeed, so much of a sponge is the child’s brain that linguists maintain a child could master 50 languages by the age of six!

Up until World War II, no higher priority was there for American parents than being there for one’s children.  As a result, each generation’s children earned ever higher degrees (and ever-higher paychecks) than did the one before.

That is no longer true.

Jackie Kennedy famously noted that the older she got the more convinced she became that no amount of fame, position, or income could possibly compensate for having failed as a parent.

In my own life, I owe whatever success has come my way to having been blessed by parents who considered me, my brother Romayne, and my sister Marjorie to be their #1 priority in life.  Because we were missionary kids, I was home schooled for 14 of the first 16 years of my life.  During those early years I was ferried once a week to the nearest American library where I checked out as many books as I could stagger home with.  As a result, guided by my remarkable mother (an elocutionist who had memorized thousands of pages of short stories, poetry, and readings), I devoured library after library—and have never quit.  My brother became an internationally known concert pianist, earning two doctorates in music, in Austria.  And my sister became an award-winning artist with the brush.

There is an epidemic of home schooling taking place in our nation right now.  It is hard for me to admit this—being the product of two masters degrees and a doctorate, and having dedicated 34 out of 36 years to formal Christian education in my pre-publishing career—admit that today I have grave doubts about the effectiveness of our current formal education template: ever larger classes, ever less time to devote to individual students, ever more complex bureaucratic paper-work to deal with, unable to so much as touch or hug a child without being accused of molestation, graduate students being forced to take classes from graduate assistants so that their ostensible faculty may continue to churn out scholarship no one reads. . . .  This litany could go on.

But I must return to the beginning: the home.  For it is the home alone—the mother and father working hand-in-hand, led by God—that holds the answer to the sad case of Little Boy Blue.  And each time such a twosome determine to sacrifice whatever it takes to be there, be home whenever the child is home during the growing-up years (for at least one parent—be it mother or father—to be there to answer all the tens of thousands of “whys?” that each small child fires machine-gun style each day); to take the time to themselves be the pulpit, to control the avenues to their children’s hearts, minds, and souls; to establish a daily story hour during which values worth living by may be internalized; to make possible the serenity which alone can enable each child to dream…. 

            Ah!  To dream:

“We grow great by dreams.  All big men and women are dreamers.  They see things in the soft haze of a spring day or in the red fire of a long winter’s evening.  Some of us let these great dreams die, but others nourish and protect them; nurse them through bad days till they bring them to the sunshine and light which always comes to those who hope that their dreams will come true.”

                                                            —Woodrow Wilson

* * * * *

See you next Wednesday.

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MIRACLE IN SILVER SPRING

Every time I’m overwhelmed by the apparent hopelessness of the next generation of non-reading, unthinking, and inarticulate youth, all I have to do is think of Michael [a pseudonym], and hope is restored.

Let me tell you his story.

Some years ago, in my Freshman Composition class in an eastern college one fall, was a young man from the inner city.  Always, Michael sat in the back row—for good reason: he didn’t want to be called on for answers.  Almost never had he completed an assignment; he could not write a coherent sentence, much less paragraph.  His reading reports were disasters—when he bothered to get one in.  In short, he was about as close to a mental zero as they come.

The most daunting assignment of all, the Nightingale Project (a six-week-long immersion in reading, thinking, and goal-setting), he abjectly failed.

Then came mid-semester grades.  I was relieved to see him stay after class: one more F I wouldn’t have to give out at the end of the semester.  He extended a drop-sheet for me to sign, saying, “Dr. Wheeler, I have to drop your class.”

“Can’t keep up, Michael?”

“No, I can’t.”

“How about your other classes?”

“The same.”  Then a long sigh, followed by, “It all seems hopeless.”

I knew why.  Early on he’d admitted there was almost no silence in his life.  At home, the television set was blaring from the moment the first person got up until the last person went to bed.  No place where he could think.

But his next words surprised me: “But, Dr. Wheeler, I’ll be back—and I’ll get the top A in your class.”

I managed not to choke: Sure you will—about as likely as your being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature!  I just nodded, however, chalking it up to braggadocio or face-saving.  He left the room, and I forgot about him—just another of those failures that make Bell Curve grading possible.

* * *

Almost a year passed, and it was fall once again.  Another batch of Freshman Composition students streamed into the classroom and found their seats.  When things finally quieted down, I looked up and did a double-take: It couldn’t be!  But it was. Here was Michael again–but with one big difference: he’d moved from the back row to the front row.  Strange!  What’s he trying to prove?

Since there were so many others competing for my attention in the large class, it took a while before things began to register in my mind.  Developments I chalked up to aberrations or possible cheating (a sad probability that all teachers today are forced to deal with): A’s on quizzes, answering questions correctly, hand raised when I asked questions, well-written essays and book-reports.

Finally, at home one night, I took out my grade book and did some tabulating.  None of it made sense to me: short of a brain transplant, this sort of 180E reversal just wasn’t possible.  Something—I didn’t know what—was definitely rotten in Denmark—uh, Silver Spring.  Decided to get to the bottom of it.

When the bell rang at the end of the next class, I asked Michael to stay.  When the classroom was empty, I unloaded on him, in my sternest voice: “Michael, I just don’t understand.  All your assignments are in, you participate in class, your grades are excellent, your writing is clear and persuasive, and to top it all off, you’ve read more pages of outside reading than anyone else in class.  What gives?

I was blind-sided by that radiant smile, the absolute last thing I expected.  “Dr. Wheeler, I’ve been wondering how long it would take for you to grill me.  Normally, you’re so quick, I’d expected it much earlier.”

I was totally at a loss for words.

He continued, “It’s this way, Dr. Wheeler.  You may remember that last year I told you there was no silence in my life, no books in my house—except my textbooks, no magazines, no newspapers—nothing but noise.”

I nodded.  When is he going to admit guilt?

“Well, during the Nightingale Assignment, you demanded of us one hour of silence a day.  First time I could ever remember silence.  Didn’t know what to do with it at first.  Made me think. . . .  But something else happened last year: You forced us to check out all those books from your paperback library.”

I nodded again.  I’d personally sought out, purchased, inventoried, and shelved all those 10,000 books—had a hard time finding a room big enough for them.

He continued, in a slower voice now, “Well, this may be hard for you to believe, but something strange happened to me last fall: I fell in love with reading!  Discovered a whole new world in those books.  After I dropped your class, I practically lived in the paperback library.  It was quiet there, so I studied there often.  That’s why I’m still here.  My grades came up—I was off academic probation by summer.  During summer months, when I wasn’t working, I hung out in the public library.  Kept reading: so many subjects, so many authors, so many new doors opening in my mind.”

“And now, how are your other classes going?”

“All A’s.”

What could I say?  I was too dumbfounded to process all this in just a few minutes.

“Well, Dr. Wheeler, got to run or I’ll be late for my next class.  Oops! [as the bell rang], I already am.”  And he rushed off.

* * *

At the end of the semester, I did something I’d never done before—nor have I since: I phoned a student about his final grade.  When I informed Michael he’d earned the highest grade in my class, I swear I could almost hear his shout 40 miles away from our home in Annapolis.

Then, he blind-sided me one more time: “Dr. Wheeler, I’ve been waiting and hoping for this to happen.  Is it . . . [he hesitated] . . . is it OK with you if I change my major?”

Why was he asking me such a question?

“Because I want to major in English.”

And he did.

* * *

And Michael is the reason I’m still hopeful about the possibility of life-changing miracles—even as late as college years!

Stay tuned.  See you next Wednesday.

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LITTLE BOY BLUE

So what is happening to our boys? They begin life, just like girls, brimming over with a sense of wonder. Each day far too short for all they want to see and do. Their sense of beauty is just as strong as girls’ are. They cry just as often and as much at heart-stopping beauty: be it a sunset, a story, a painting, a piece of music, or a face. They yearn with fierce passion to become, to learn all there is to know.

And then . . . they wither. They disengage. They begin majoring in minors—and never quit. Their dreams die stillborn.

Broken driveshafts litter the land. Why? No one seems to know. Or care. But I do.

* * * * *

Where and when did we lose them? It started early—very, very early. With:

“Don’t bother me, Daddy’s busy!”
“Will you just shut up! Your questions are driving me crazy!”
“No, I don’t have time to take you to the park.”
“No, you can’t play outside, there are perverts on the loose!”
“No, you can’t have a sandpile—sandpiles are too messy.”
“No, Mommy doesn’t have time to read to you,. Go watch TV—no, I don’t care what you watch, as long as you leave me alone!”

Since a boy deprived of action is a Ferrari limited to a thirty-foot-long strip of pavement, boys end up going where we send them—to video games (the wilder, the more violent, the edgier the better), to gameboys, to dark movies, to 24/7 sports (most of it vicarious). Vicarious . . . that says it all. Since we deprive them of action in the real world outside, they settle for a meaningless virtual world. All that pent-up energy that should be channeled into life-affirming growth is poured down a rat hole. Makes no difference, be it drugs, liquor, violence, porn, or lassitude: the results are the same, reminding me of a summer day in Nashville, many years ago. I was alternatively reading and taking notes from a large stack of books, and swimming laps in a rooftop swimming pool. A young man of about eighteen was sprawled out on a deck chair doing nothing. Out of the blue, he spoke up:

“What are you doing here in Nashville?”

“Me? Oh, I’m working on my doctorate in English. That’s why I’m reading so many books.”

“Oh, I’m just curious; you seem to really enjoy it—like you get high on it.”

I laughed. “I do. I do get high on it. It’s exciting to grow, to learn things I didn’t know before.”

Then the saddest words I’ve ever heard, accompanied by a sigh: “Guess I could never get your kind of high—it’s so much easier to just do drugs.”

I never saw him again.

* * * * *

Which leads me to a recent conversation I had with an area elementary school principal. She said, “Since you’re so involved with getting kids into reading, you’ll never believe what they told us at a reading conference I just attended.”

“What was that?”

“When you’re reading to small children, don’t show them the pictures.”

“Huh? You’ve got to be kidding!”

“That’s just what I said.”

“What possible reason could they have for not showing them the pictures?”

“That’s the part I can’t get out of my head. They say that most children today come from non-reading homes—hardly a book, magazine, or newspaper to be found anywhere—, replaced of course by a large screen/media center. . . . Well, everything in the house being electronic, these kids are so electronically overexposed they are literally incapable of creating their own mental pictures—”

“In other words,” I broke in, “they are incapable of imagining.”

“Exactly. So they tell us not to show them the pictures, as they’d be just one more visual crutch to keep them from creating their own mental pictures. So we’re supposed to read them but one line at a time, stop, then ask them what kind of mental pictures they can come up with, so that gradually, over time, we may help them belatedly to begin to think their own thoughts.”

I was stunned. Speechless.

So no wonder we’re losing our boys! Deprived of action and growth in the real world, and deprived by media overexposure of the ability to imagine, to conceptualize, to think, one by one they disengage, leave us, and spiral out of life into darkness. You can tell by the vacant stare, the bored look in their eyes, that they’re no longer with you. So it’s little surprise when they drop out, give up on college and real growth, and inertly slip down into a virtual world from which they never return.

So they’re just as dead to us as was Eugene Field’s unforgettable Little Boy Blue, whose toys

“. . . wonder, as waiting the long years through
In the dust of that little chair,
What has become of our Little Boy Blue,
Since he kissed them and put them there.”

* * * * *

Next Wednesday, we’ll tackle the learning ramifications of being incapable of imagining.

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We're Losing Our Boys. . . And Men

How I wish they’d been wrong—but they weren’t.

About twenty years ago, Newsweek did a cover story on boys, pointing out widespread concern about something scary that teachers were seeing in classrooms across the country: boys bailing out of the educational process at an ever earlier age.  Mesmerized by the pied pipers of the media and sports, boys were all but ceasing to read, write, or grow intellectually.  If this trend continued, pundits warned, boys will bail out of college and higher education as well—and that would have devastating consequences in terms of the future of our nation.

Ever since reading that study, I’ve been intensely aware of the problem whenever I’m in the presence of students, young or old.  I speak and read to elementary students quite often, and it’s almost always the same: girls are excited about authors, books, ideas, and growth; boys generally make little effort to stifle their yawns.  Of course, thank goodness, there are exceptions—but that’s what they are: exceptions to the norm.

I strongly suspect most parents don’t realize the price their children will pay during the rest of their lives for permitting the media center to replace the home library, the electronic tentacles of cyberspace to replace the daily story hour.  Studies reveal that if a child doesn’t fall in love with reading by the third grade, it’s not likely to ever take place at all.

As to the price we’re paying at this moment in history, just listen to David Brooks (The New York Times, Feb. 17, 2010):

“We’re looking at an extended period of above 8% unemployment.  The biggest impact is on men.  Over the past few decades, men have lagged behind women in acquiring education and skills.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at age 22, 185 women have graduated from college for every 100 men [my italics].  Furthermore, men are concentrated in industries where employment is declining (manufacturing) or highly cyclical (construction).  So men have taken an especially heavy blow during this crisis.  The gap between the male and female unemployment rates has reached its highest level since the government began keeping such records.”

Brooks notes that “men who are unemployed for a significant amount of time are more likely to drink more, abuse their children more and suffer debilitating blows to their identity.  Unemployed men are not exactly the most eligible mates. . . .  For decades, men have adopted poorly to the shifting demands of the service economy.  Now they are paying the price.  The working class is in danger of descending into underclass-style dysfunction.  For decades, young people have been living in a loose, under-institutionalized world.  Now they are moving back home in droves.  We need to redefine masculinity” [my italics].  For the first time in American history, women will be holding down the majority of our jobs—besides being the primary caregivers, as daughters, mothers, and wives.

At the rate we’re moving, it can only get worse for men—and for the women who depend on them.

I do have some answers, but they are long-term and will be anything but easy to achieve.  There can be no quick fix to a problem of this magnitude!

I shall continue the dialogue on this issue with next Wednesday’s blog.

Stay tuned.

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We're Losing Our Boys. . . And Men

How I wish they’d been wrong—but they weren’t.

About twenty years ago, Newsweek did a cover story on boys, pointing out widespread concern about something scary that teachers were seeing in classrooms across the country: boys bailing out of the educational process at an ever earlier age.  Mesmerized by the pied pipers of the media and sports, boys were all but ceasing to read, write, or grow intellectually.  If this trend continued, pundits warned, boys will bail out of college and higher education as well—and that would have devastating consequences in terms of the future of our nation.

Ever since reading that study, I’ve been intensely aware of the problem whenever I’m in the presence of students, young or old.  I speak and read to elementary students quite often, and it’s almost always the same: girls are excited about authors, books, ideas, and growth; boys generally make little effort to stifle their yawns.  Of course, thank goodness, there are exceptions—but that’s what they are: exceptions to the norm.

I strongly suspect most parents don’t realize the price their children will pay during the rest of their lives for permitting the media center to replace the home library, the electronic tentacles of cyberspace to replace the daily story hour.  Studies reveal that if a child doesn’t fall in love with reading by the third grade, it’s not likely to ever take place at all.

As to the price we’re paying at this moment in history, just listen to David Brooks (The New York Times, Feb. 17, 2010):

“We’re looking at an extended period of above 8% unemployment.  The biggest impact is on men.  Over the past few decades, men have lagged behind women in acquiring education and skills.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at age 22, 185 women have graduated from college for every 100 men [my italics].  Furthermore, men are concentrated in industries where employment is declining (manufacturing) or highly cyclical (construction).  So men have taken an especially heavy blow during this crisis.  The gap between the male and female unemployment rates has reached its highest level since the government began keeping such records.”

Brooks notes that “men who are unemployed for a significant amount of time are more likely to drink more, abuse their children more and suffer debilitating blows to their identity.  Unemployed men are not exactly the most eligible mates. . . .  For decades, men have adopted poorly to the shifting demands of the service economy.  Now they are paying the price.  The working class is in danger of descending into underclass-style dysfunction.  For decades, young people have been living in a loose, under-institutionalized world.  Now they are moving back home in droves.  We need to redefine masculinity” [my italics].  For the first time in American history, women will be holding down the majority of our jobs—besides being the primary caregivers, as daughters, mothers, and wives.

At the rate we’re moving, it can only get worse for men—and for the women who depend on them.

I do have some answers, but they are long-term and will be anything but easy to achieve.  There can be no quick fix to a problem of this magnitude!

I shall continue the dialogue on this issue with next Wednesday’s blog.

Stay tuned.