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Today’s boys

The Trouble With Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do by Peg Tyre. Crown, 2008. 320 pages.

For the last 30 years, many teachers and parents have understood that a disconnect exists between schools and adolescent males. Male academic performance on the elementary and secondary levels has eroded. Reading levels among boys have fallen sharply in the last 30 years. Fewer young men are going off to college each fall — in 2005, less than 43 percent of the undergraduates enrolled in American colleges and universities were men.

In The Trouble With Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do (Crown Publishers, ISBN 978-0-307-38128-6, $24.95), Peg Tyre, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a former writer for Newsweek specializing in education and social issues, takes a long, clear look at the way in which our schools educate boys in this country and why that system is failing, and then presents some clear, intriguing solutions to these problems.

In her introduction, Tyre issues several caveats. She warns people that her book isn’t designed to lay blame at anyone’s doorstep for the problems with boys, that the problems are “too broad and too serious to point an accusatory finger at teachers, schools, trends in parenting, feminism, or those old favorite whipping boys ‘the media’ and ‘society.’” Here she also notes that we should distrust “easy and obvious solutions,” that “there’s a big gap between what we think will help boys and what has proven to be effective.”

In “Preschool Blues,” Tyre presents a litany of reasons why boys and formal education all too often knock heads. Childhood has changed drastically in the last 50 years. With both parents often working a full-time job — in the early 1970s, 60 percent of all mothers with school-age children stayed at home — the old days of free play for children under 6 years old have vanished. Boys who once entered the discipline of a classroom at age 6 or even 7 now toddle off to day-care centers at age 2 and 3.

Parents have changed, too, as Tyre shows us so well. A parent in the 1950s or 1960s “didn’t pay too much attention to kids’ play. Parents — usually mothers — were responsible for feeding children, clothing them, giving them a bath, taking them to church, and providing them with a basic education. No one spent a lot of time fretting about a child’s cognitive development.” Today parents worry incessantly about their children’s mental growth, consequently pushing children into all sorts of activities at an early age. Tyre tell us that:

“In middle-class neighborhoods, where parents pushing Bugaboo strollers are already projecting their offspring’s SAT scores, preschool administrators use a different calculus. They know that many boys — and some girls — are not ready for the kinds of early academic programs they now embed in their curricula. Anxious, competitive parents, however, make it clear that they want these programs. School administrators know their enrollment rates and financial futures are contingent on keeping those parents happy.”

In revealing certain disadvantages for boys given over to these academic preschools, Tyre quotes Rebecca Marcon’s study, Early Childhood Research and Practices, which makes apparent the fact that boys sent to academic preschools often fell behind those who attended preschools stressing play and movement.

As she leads us up the academic ladder, Tyre points out other problems with our system in terms of teaching boys. The current stress on testing and on cramming academic courses into each school day has caused many schools to abandon recess, despite mountains of evidence that children in elementary school need to shout, run, play, and simply visit (Many adults, if they think about their own elementary school days, may find themselves remembering far more incidents and conversations from their 30 minutes of daily recess than from five hours spent in classes).

A scarcity of male teachers, Tyre tells us, also effects the attitude of boys in school. Too often boys come to regard school and reading as feminine activities, in part because of the preponderance of female teachers. Many parents have seen their sons come alive academically under the tutelage of a male in the classroom. Tyre points out that the final objective should not be to simply hire more male teachers, but to hire better teachers, male and female (Although Tyre doesn’t dwell on the point, some critics of our educational system have also pointed out that we need teachers trained in their subject — biology, history, literature — rather than as educators).

Many boys don’t like to read. Blamed for this failure nowadays are television, computers, and electronic games. As Tyre demonstrates, however, a good part of the fault lies with what boys are forced to read by many schools. “It’s an awkward moment,” Tyre suggests, “when a teacher suggests Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder and her little male student opts instead for The Day My Butt Went Psycho.” She also cites a 2001 Canadian study which found that “Mormon families in Salt Lake City and lesbian couples in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are equally likely to produce a Captain Underpants fan.”

In one of Tyre’s more telling examples of how boys and education are so often misfits, she quotes Vivian Paley, a renowned kindergarten teacher and winner of a MacArthur Award. Here Paley is demonstrating how differently boys and girls tell stories.

“Here’s the girls’ story: ’Once there were four kittens and they found a pretty bunny. Then they went to buy the bunny some food and they fed the baby bunny and then they went on a picnic.’

“Here’s the boys’ story: ’We sneaked up on a house. Then we put the good guys in jail. Then we killed some of the good guys. Then the four bad guys got some money and some jewels.”

The Trouble With Boys should be read by parents with sons and by teachers who teach those sons. By her observations and acute suggestions, Tyre has performed for us all an invaluable service in understanding boys today.

And in terms of learning, we might all, in these foreboding times, heed T.H. White’s advice in The Once and Future King:

“The best thing for being sad,” said Merlyn, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lay awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never by tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn — pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a million lifetimes in biology and medicine and theocriticism and geography and history and economics — why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary in fencing. After that you can start on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.”

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