The academic life of boys

One of the many problems that boys have in school is that educators, for the most part, don’t see them as being interested in the academic side of school. By that I mean that boys will learn the facts that are presented in class, but they don’t seem to be concerned with the abstract nature of what was being studied. A friend, who taught in a girls’ school, complained that as the school became coed, the boys who joined the school toward the end of her time at the school were only being interested in “plots and mayhem.” Her point was that she had been used to teaching about the emotional side of the characters in the books and the boys didn’t seem interested in that.

boys in a classroomFor those of you whose sons are not yet in high school, this is a problem that will still crop up, but middle school teachers are usually more willing to talk about the more active or technical parts of a story and it isn’t usually an issue in elementary school. The problem in elementary school is that there are so few good books that boys can really engage with. Captain Underpants, The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Percy Jackson are rarely on the required reading lists for elementary schools. These books are not considered the sort of literary works that children can use to learn to analyze a story. I’ve blogged about the lack of books for boys before, but if you want another go at that topic, let me know.

A classic example of how the literary approach makes boys disinterested in reading is The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne. When my friend taught all girls, they had long heart-to-heart discussions about the emotional impact that being betrayed by Dimmesdale had on Hester Prynne, about the symbolism of Hester’s name and that of her daughter, and how this tale related to the present day. When boys joined the school, they were much more interested in the power play among the males of the story than they were in the effect on poor Hester. One day, this teacher was trying to get the class to discuss the emotions, and a boy said, “Oh, I get all the emotion of this story, but what does that have to do with me? Or, for that matter with any girls today?” When the teacher began a discussion of punishment in the book, the boys took much more interest in this story.

What my friend eventually realized was that boys are interested in the abstract nature of literature, but their interests are somewhat different than those of the girls. The girls were interested in the romance of Hester and her unrequited love. The boys were interested in how power can corrupt and in the necessity of honesty in dealing with people.

Some years ago, a few of my high school students were taking AP English Lit when one of the books they had to study was Pride and Prejudice. The girls loved the romantic side of the story, but one of my male students complained that it was just a lightweight love story, no better than a rom-com movie. I suggested that he think about the story from an economic standpoint – how did the source of money make a difference between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, why was Mrs. Bennet so concerned with getting her daughters married, and why were the Bennet relatives the Gardiners and the Philips not considered social equals? And more importantly, where did Mr. Bennet get his money from and why was Mrs. Bennet so worried about Mr. Collins? The next day, my student came in totally engrossed with the story. He had examined the text for all references to money and found a great many. He pointed out that he thought it was the real theme of the story. However, his teacher did not share his enthusiasm for this approach to studying the book. My student had the last word; he used that approach to analyze the story on his AP exam and did very well!

My point is that boys are very academic, but their interests may be different from those of their teachers. Teachers in boys’ schools who teach this novel can focus on economics, but the boys need to understand that it is also a romance. Teachers in girls’ schools can start with the romance and then point out the problems that economics are going to create for the love story. Teachers in coed schools need to be able to balance the two approaches.

Boys have the reputation of being more interested in science and mathematics, but that is really because those teachers start with more concrete materials and then move to the abstracts. Boys like concrete approaches, and are usually willing to think abstractly about those topics once they have a good understanding of the facts. Girls think they won’t like these subjects because they start with specifics, which seem to focus on getting the right answer. Many girls prefer the abstract approach because there is more room for opinion and analysis, thereby allowing for a wider range of correct answers. The point here is that true academic study looks at both approaches.

When I try to get teachers to start with more concrete facts and then move to examining abstract themes, the teachers will say that is not a very academic approach. They want to focus on the literary merits of the story not the technical aspects. I did have one teacher point out that he had a hard time teaching Hemingway because the boys would all focus on the war and not on how the characters were relating to each other. However, both approaches are necessary to understand the story. It doesn’t matter which they start with, but if there is a war in a story, the boys are going to want to discuss it.

If your boy is having trouble getting into a book, have him tell you the plot and if he’s young enough, have him act out some of the action. Once he knows what’s going on in the story, then you can ask him to tell you about how the characters connect with each other, where the friendships are, and why other characters don’t get along. That approach will help your son understand that he does have academic skills.