Educating the Lost Boys

By June 23, 2014Uncategorized

The following article appeared in the April/May issue of the St. Croix Review. //

I have a continuing series called “Educating the Lost Boys” in this journal. Soon I will be featured as a blogger on their upcoming revamped website…so stay tuned!

A short introduction…

I believe that we must transform the way we think about “school” in order to save education from its current dismal state. In order to do this, we must rethink the way we structure school curricula, schedules, buildings, neighborhoods, and our approach to teaching character education and the Christian Faith. For too long we have settled for a tired old factory model that no longer works in tandem with families, where family culture is balanced with school. Classrooms are passive affairs where many of the young do not connect what they are learning with the real world. And boys in particular are no longer inducted into manhood due to the lack of coming of age rituals and apprenticeships. A stodgy school culture, constantly seeking to align with the current fads and standards has put aside the essentials and the cultivation of an authentic christian culture within the school environment. Though my focus in this essay is on the plight of boys, I plan to write more about ways to rethink “school” throughout this year.

In every society the tendency to centralize and make things simple and the same tends to destroy innovation. We are seeing this in our economy and now we are seeing it in the realm of education. Grassroots efforts to renew education have the potential to truly lead the young out of the darkness of ignorance and into the truth of what it means to be human. 


Educating the Lost Boys

In countless classrooms stretching across the United States boys are trapped. In millions of homes boys sit passively watching screens–screens that present to them a world far away from the seemingly boring world that so frustrates them. The forests and fields are empty of those romping lads that once tramped along the wooded paths enacting those glorious adventures of building forts and planning secret missions. The once ripe fields destined for fruitful labor have grown fallow, and the frivolity of a bourgeois society has successfully taken away many of the challenges meant to help boys come of age. We now have on our hands a great crisis of boyhood. But how has this happened?

For most boys in America, school is a mild form of incarceration, and so they quite naturally wish to escape. This desire of course is not an entirely new development. The image of Huck Finn tramping down a country road, far from school, to find his fishing hole is impressed on the imaginations of most Americans–at least those who are still permitted to read about his adventures.

For many centuries boys have been a “briar in the britches” of many a school teacher. The challenge has always been the same: how to direct the restless spirit of a boy toward noble endeavors so that he can come of age and give of himself to his family, friends, society, and God. However, the challenge that faces parents and educators these days lies in our culture–a culture that no longer values true masculinity; a culture that has forgotten how to guide boys into manhood.

Boys are not the only ones who have a great aversion towards school. As a middle school administrator and teacher for twelve years I noticed a common trait amongst most fathers: they do not relish the visit to their son’s classroom. The common reaction of most fathers at parent-teacher conferences is to shift about in a small rigid desk and look out the window as the mother engages in meaningful conversation about curriculum and academic progress. The restless father seems to get sudden flashbacks, like a veteran of the Great War–of those sad times spent in the classroom trenches. Times spent sitting down with nothing to do, make, or apply his knowledge to. He remembers being told “be quiet” and “sit down”, or “put that down” and “stop running!”.

We are now dealing with an epidemic of academic failure, inattention, and an extended adolescence amongst boys that is deeply wounding our culture. The numbers are astounding:

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics:

  • Boys are 30 percent more likely than girls to flunk or drop out of school;
  • When it comes to grades and homework, girls outperform boys in elementary, secondary, high school, college, and even graduate school;
  • Boys are four to five times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD);

According to the U.S. Department of Education:

  • Boys make up two-thirds of the students in special education and are five times more likely to be classified as hyperactive.

Many boys are not succeeding in school. The increase of ADD diagnosis, addictions to false forms of adventure in video games, and disengagement in the classroom reveal a problem with the way we are challenging boys in and out of school. A wide array of books and documentaries that account for this problem keep appearing in bookstores and online. There is even a PBS website called Raising Cain wholly dedicated to analyzing the problems boys are facing.

When a society loses a vision of man–his purpose, his role, his vocation to give of himself to others through the skills and knowledge he has–it also loses a vision of boyhood. We are struggling to provide boys with the activities, relationships, tools, and the freedoms they need to experience a meaningful boyhood.

School: Not a Boy Friendly Environment

Many boys see school as a place that just doesn’t not match up with their skills and interests with the wider world. They see it as a place where their spiritedness does not belong.

I remember interviewing a 9 year old boy in Texas. He recently transferred out of his local school. I asked him what he didn’t like about it. He said “Um, at my last school, everyone right now in fifth grade is not allowed to go outside and play anymore. They only have like a 15 minute break, only just talking. And all you have to do in class is just sit in your desk and work, work, work.”

Boys see school as a place that is merely preparatory and not a place where they can accomplish tasks in the here and now.  Many boys are tired of paperwork and pretend. How many parents hear their kids respond to the question “How was school today?” with “School is so boring. The teacher just talks the whole time and then we fill out worksheets!”

The standards of an increasingly compartmentalized university environment have trickled down into high schools, grammar schools, and even kindergartens. The growing body of content that students are “required” to learn together with the onslaught of standardized tests have created an assembly line environment that focuses on information gathering, rather than the integral development of the human person.

This is not a problem that only affects boys. There are far reaching consequences to these problems in education–and now many people are rethinking traditional school models. But there is a solution.

When boys reach the age of 7 or 8 especially they yearn to test their skills and knowledge to see if they match up to others, and whether they have a particular gift with which they can engage the world around them. Throughout the history of society, boys have experienced coming of age rituals. Whether it is the Massai warrior hunting down his first lion, the page training for knighthood, or the apprentice in his father’s shop, there were many ways for boys to come of age. What are the avenues for boys to come of age today?

Young men are pouring out of schools lost and fumbling–trying to find their place in the “real world.” They lack hard skills; they consider college to be the end goal of education; they view sports as the only venue for manliness; and they have a confused notion of what it means to be a man in society. But there is a solution…

The solution is to establish an educational system dedicated to fostering and celebrating an authentic boyhood that leads to true manhood.

What they need…

Boys are full of potential that needs to be activated. They long to break out of the walls that hem them in at school and experience the world around them. They need a school that will tap into their drive and inspire them to do, to make, to solve problems, to give of themselves through the knowledge and skills they have mastered.

Boys long for a landscape of action where they learn to navigate boyhood and become young men of courage and imagination. They need to work and study alongside men who guide them – together with their parents – along the adventurous road to manhood.

They need a place where the academic curriculum is rooted in the great traditions of learning, guided by the compass of wisdom attained through the study of the liberal arts and sciences; where they hear, speak, and write alongside the masters of old; where their imaginations are enriched by characters and stories that inspire them with wonder and refine their consciences; where they learn the art of liberty and what it means to be human.

They yearn for adventures in the outdoors, where their limits are tested and their hearts and minds grow strong; where competitions and games are part of learning; where they reconnect with nature and experience the joy of working with their hands.

And they need a place where they can actively live their faith.

During an insightful and heartfelt lecture to the Chicago Leadership Forum, Gen. Josiah Bunting III, former headmaster of VMI (Virginia Military Institute) spoke on the education of America’s founders. He recounted the trials and challenges these men experienced: they raised families; they husbanded farms; they applied themselves to the study of humanities and sought scientific knowledge; they rode horses and fought battles; were men of faith and reason; and most of all…they placed the common good above their own private interests. In short, they understood what it meant to be a man.

Today, most boys go from their comfortable rooms, to warm showers, to the food the pantry, to a climate controlled car, to an over scheduled school day, and then back to their room. In a desire to give them a safe comfortable environment we have eliminated the challenges, manly tasks, and risks that boys precisely need. Our overly litigious society has permitted a liability culture to grow to such an extent that schools can’t do anything that is mildly risky. Try setting up a challenge course field trip and you will need a three million dollar insurance policy just to begin the process.

If boys do not get these challenges they will remain either indifferent, passive and soft, or grow increasingly restless, angry, and frustrated at a world in which they do not belong. It is imperative that schools provide boys with an environment that permits them to come of age.

Meg Meeker says it best in her book Boys should be Boys:

“…today, natural, healthy boyhood is under attack. It is threatened…by an educational establishment that devalues masculinity and boyishness.” 

What might a school look like that is a refuge for boyhood–a place where boys thrive in education. How do we prepare them for manhood, professional life, and higher education? How does one construct a school environment and educational program that provides the avenues for boys to come of age and become men of virtue, knowledge, and skills, who seek the good of others above their own private interests? This ought to be the discussion surrounding boys and school. And there is a solution!

Peter Searby

Author Peter Searby

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