I've been hooked on books since childhood, and still am. I usually have at least three books going at any given time. After nearly two decades teaching middle school, I've developed strong opinions about YA fiction. A married mother of many adult children, and a practicing Catholic, my moral paradigms do play into my reviews.
Review of Boys Adrift, by Dr. Leonard Sax
This is a fairly long and detailed review of a book I read and studied for my professional development as a teacher. I was seeking some insight into why young men in my 8th grade classroom are so wiggly and unimpressed with deadlines. I got some answers. I may or may not agree with everything I read there, but here is my review of this fascinating book.
The book opens with a chapter titled “The Riddle”, discussing the various ways that boys in general, and throughout history(American history, at least) have struggled with, disdained, or outright rebelled against school. He walks through several very disturbing statistics to back up his concerns about boys really not succeeding scholastically, not engaging in the “system” or in real life very much, and what is perhaps worse, really not caring either. It is this apathy that is the author’s main concern.He does also have a book about girls and their issues, so calm down gender activists!
He lists five concerns that may account for the growing number of boys (and men) who seem to be falling away from education: (1) changes in the way we teach and structure classrooms now, (2) an addiction to video games and the results of that, (3) the overuse of certain prescription medication (especially for ADHD), (4) environmental toxins, especially endocrine disruptors in the environment (think plastics), and (5) the devaluation of masculinity overall in our culture, resulting in, among other things, insufficient or inappropriate role models.
A look at the changes in educational theory and practice in the last 40-50 years gives us some insight into this disengagement of the male half of the youth population we serve. First, it is poppycock that girls and boys can “learn the same way”. And we need to acknowledge that. the physical difference in boys and girls goes well beyond their external and internal reproductive organs. One suggestion, based on the speed and pattern of brain development in both boys and girls, is that we simply start school later in life, especially for boys, waiting until their brains are sufficiently developed, and ready to handle learning to read and write. This speaks in favor of holding kids (mostly boys) back a year or two early on, especially from Kindergarten. He also argues in favor or a more hands-on style of learning, with longer breaks and more “play” or “free” time. Think longer recesses, and more outdoor and experiential learning. More “kenntnis” and less “wissenschaft” (see p. 29) In addition, he speaks at length on how treating children like little computers who can be programmed leaves out a huge portion of the complexity that is a human being. You don’t have to motivate your computer.
The feminization of education was perhaps what interested me the most. Boys no longer “fit well” into what is considered ‘acceptable” in school. Boys like to move around, they like to compete, they like hero stories, war stories, manly things like sports and being the protector: but they are being told to sit down, be quiet, and write essays about “how they feel.” The author cited as a great example a short story he wrote 30 years ago in middle school about breaking out of a German Prisoner Of War Camp, which today would get him sent to a psychiatrist for evaluation for “violence.” He also argues that every child who wants to play on a team sport should be allowed to play, since competition in appropriate arenas is vital to the male psyche. Boys respond best to any challenge where there is a clear winner and loser, and there is a chance that anyone could win if they try hard enough. The author also makes a striking argument in favor of team competition in the classroom as being very motivating for boys. And a compelling argument for gender specific schools, as well. A girl who thinks she's smart will perform better; conversely a boy who thinks he's smart will usually not try as hard and thus will perform worse. "Build the girls up, break the boys down" captures the essence of research. I am sorting through my thoughts on this topic. But my 20+ years of experience in middle school classrooms backs up most of what he says anecdotally, and he has research galore in this book, citation after citation.
The video game conversation confirms what we have known for some time: a child whose early life consists predominantly of being entertained by a computer screen simply will not develop in the same way that a child who has been sent outside to play will develop. Video games have replaced, not other leisure activities, but outdoor activities, primarily. One of the reasons boys are so drawn to video games is that there, in virtual reality, he is rewarded for being competitive, and physical --even violent. At school, he is “punished” for both. In a video game, you also get to control your environment: what Nietzche calls the “will to power.” The author cites how, throughout history, men with a strong “will to power” became great leaders, explorers, soldiers, and innovators. But today, they would likely become video game addicts instead. In addition, many video games teach a distorted view of what ”masculine” is.
There’s an overwhelming preponderance of evidence which correlates time spent playing video games to lower academic performance. Now correlation is not causation, but the evidence is clear that balancing both the time you spend playing, and choosing the game you play, can make a difference. There’s mounting evidence that spending too much time playing video games can make a boy literally less intelligent, and less able to deal with and solve real-life problems. In earlier generations, the real life leisure activities of men were likely to teach the very skills needed to solve real world problems: patience, ingenuity, virtue, compromise. Video games teach none of these. In addition, some video games teach extreme anti-social behaviors. Dr. Sax provides some excellent recommendations not only for choosing which games to allow, but for limiting their use, and prioritizing your family’s choices in leisure activities.
The third problem Dr. Sax discusses is the overuse of prescription medication, especially for ADHD. He does not argue that ADHD is a recently made-up diagnosis, but he does argue that we expect too-compliant behavior from boys, too early, without taking into account their physicality. He also states that parents can sometimes feel that they are “off the hook” if the problem is a medical diagnosis, rather than a behavioral one, so medicine is appealing to them. One concern is the use of outcome being applied as proof of diagnosis, when in fact even children without ADHD perform better in school while on these drugs. Another concern is the proven changes in personality, over time, of boys using these medications. It seems to blunt their drive to achieve, permanently. The medications appear to damage the part of the brain responsible for turning motivation to action. I am concerned about this and want to do more research myself. I have seen great changes in children who do seem to need these medications in my own school, but was largely unaware of the long term consequences research is turning up.
His fourth concern is environmental toxins and pollutants. This is an area I am growing more concerned about personally, but have not done extensive research into as of yet, so I found this interesting as well. Various environmental pollutants can disrupt the production of endocrines, and come from a variety of sources, including phthalates found in plastics such as plastic water and soda bottles, pacifiers and baby bottles. These “endocrine disruptors” have been shown to cause early onset of puberty in girls, while having the opposite effect -- a delay of puberty or even onset of feminine traits-- on boys. They have also been linked with the disruption of brain function in the area of memory and motivation, as well as ADHD, again, affecting girls differently than boys. He also refers to these chemicals as “environmental estrogen,” as they mimic those female hormones. There may also be a connection to the increase in childhood obesity and these environmental estrogens.
His final concern was the overall feminization of our culture and the severe lack of role models for “true manhood” available to boys. (He half-jokingly calls this the Revenge of the Forsaken Gods.) He stresses the importance of having multiple male role models for boys as they make the transition to adulthood, and the importance of bonds between generations of males. An interesting thought expressed by email to the author: "You mentioned 'the engine that runs the world.' As for me, I think that the engine is the love of a good woman and the ambitions we have together for the family we are raising and for the world we want them to inherit... Has our intellectual elite and our popular culture tinkered with 'the engine that runs the world'? Have we violated something that the ancients knew intuitively but which we have arrogantly ignored?" --Kent Robertson. Another thing he discusses is the lack of transitional moments for boys. Manhood isn't something that simply happens to boys as they get older. It's an achievement-- something a boy accomplishes, something that can easily go awry. If we ignore the importance of this transition, and fail in our duty as parents to guide boys through it, then we will learn the hard way why traditional cultures invest this transition with so much importance. What does it mean to be a "man"—it means using your strength in the service of others. LOVE that.
I appreciated the well-documented research, and the author’s tendency to question even his own sources. I also appreciated his recommendations. I will be making some changes to my classroom as a result, including allowing more physical movement, perhaps chairs that permit wiggling like yoga balls and rolling office chairs, more team activities and making more things into competitions, and presenting/ emphasizing real male role models for the boys in our history and literature studies.