My personal musings about anything that gets on my radar screen--heavily dominated by politics.


More Troubling News From Schools

Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky have penned this troubling article in this morning's WaPo.

When the National Endowment for the Arts last summer released "Reading at Risk: a Survey of Literary Reading in America," journalists and commentators were quick to seize on the findings as a troubling index of the state of literary culture. The survey showed a serious decline in both literary reading and book reading in general by adults of all ages, races, incomes, education levels and regions.

But in all the discussion, one of the more worrisome trends went largely unnoticed. From 1992 to 2002, the gender gap in reading by young adults widened considerably. In overall book reading, young women slipped from 63 percent to 59 percent, while young men plummeted from 55 percent to 43 percent.

Placed in historical perspective, these findings fit with a gap that has existed in the United States since the spread of mass publishing in the mid-19th century. But for the gap to have grown so much in so short a time suggests that what was formerly a moderate difference is fast becoming a decided marker of gender identity: Girls read; boys don't.

When I was going through my teacher training classes, one of the hot button issues was gender balance. For instance, at that time (fourteen years ago) the research strongly suggested that teachers tended to ignore girls more, to be less exacting in their expectations of girls, and to, in general, communicate that boys were more important in schools.

That has all changed. I recently heard the startling statistic that women outnumber men on college campuses by 3-2. Recent research has pointed to a stark change in school culture in which boys are underachieving, overtroubled, and more often consigned to the wasteland of AD/HD and Special Education than their female counterparts. I cite as more evidence of this the fact the Laura Bush has decided to focus some of her energies in the next four years on the issue of boys.

From my perspective, a major part of the problem has been the effort in recent years to "de-boyify" boys, which goes hand in hand with the equally fallacious reasoning that there are no differences between boys and girls. What I have seen are efforts to remove competitiveness from the public schools, efforts to reduce the access boys have to real athletic challenges in school, and efforts to impose a set of behavioral standards on boys that are not fitting with what we know about how boys develop. All of these efforts are reflected in curriculum, as well:

Although one might expect the schools to be trying hard to make reading appealing to boys, the K-12 literature curriculum may in fact be contributing to the problem. It has long been known that there are strong differences between boys and girls in their literary preferences. According to reading interest surveys, both boys and girls are unlikely to choose books based on an "issues" approach, and children are not interested in reading about ways to reform society -- or themselves. But boys prefer adventure tales, war, sports and historical nonfiction, while girls prefer stories about personal relationships and fantasy. Moreover, when given choices, boys do not choose stories that feature girls, while girls frequently select stories that appeal to boys.

Unfortunately, the textbooks and literature assigned in the elementary grades do not reflect the dispositions of male students. Few strong and active male role models can be found as lead characters. Gone are the inspiring biographies of the most important American presidents, inventors, scientists and entrepreneurs. No military valor, no high adventure. On the other hand, stories about adventurous and brave women abound. Publishers seem to be more interested in avoiding "masculine" perspectives or "stereotypes" than in getting boys to like what they are assigned to read.

If you don't think this will have consequences in the world to come, think again. Imagine an entire generation of men, many from home lives which do not have a good male role model, whose picture of manhood is reflected through the eyes of the women who are put forward to them as heroines and through the pop-culture icons of the day.

I hope the first lady is successful in, at least, shining a big light on this problem and getting the country off of its PC butt, and doing something about really bringing up boys.

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