a brief excerpt from
The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease
(Penguin, 2013, 7th edition).
Now available as both a paperback and e-book.
See also Handbook
CHAPTER 9: Dad—What's the score?
The American male reading-problem
I was taking a vacation walk on a beach recently when I noticed the sand castles. The first one was pretty impressive. Watching the father and sons constructing the scene, handful by handful, I guessed the father to be an architect or an engineer. Had to be, I thought.
Continuing my walk, I encountered another family bent over a sand castle. In fact, there were more than a dozen castles yet to be seen— some good, some poor, and a few spectacular. Together, they had me thinking there was a common denominator among the best of them— a father (or older male) usually was involved. If dad was there, the boys were more involved and succeeding. When the adult male was missing, so, too, was the achievement among the boys, and the castles were inferior.
I couldn’t help but connect those thoughts to the current problems we have with young boys and schooling. I’m sure there is no quick remedy, but we as a culture had better come up with some solutions pretty soon. As one critic put it, you can’t make much progress as a country if only one gender is working at it.
Some say it’s a boy problem; others claim it’s a male or father problem. Before we explore that, let’s at least concede it’s not an entirely new issue, at least if we’re to believe Plato’s quote: “Do not train boys to learning by force and harshness, but lead them by what amuses them, so that they may better discover the bent of their minds.” Apparently even in 350 B.C., the little guys had an attitude problem about learning.
In case you’ve been off the planet for the past several decades, let me bring you up-to-date on our boys and their school woes.
- In a 2008 study of reading tests in forty-five states, the girls exceeded the boys at every grade level.
- Unlike four decades ago, it is now common for girls to dominate a high school’s highest academic positions (valedictorian), class leadership positions, advanced placement spaces, and school activities. While the girls are assuming responsibilities, the boys are playing sports or video games.
- For the first time in history, women exceed their male counterparts in most collegiate achievements, from enrollment and graduation to earning advanced degrees, and the gap is widening annually.
- About the only significant area in which males dominate in college is “dropout,” where they lead by a 3:2 ratio.
Tom Chiarella is one of the best long- form writers in the country today, covering everything from food to cinema, from sports to architecture. He’s also a visiting professor at DePauw University, and it was the male culture he witnessed on college campuses that provoked him to write an article for Esquire titled “The Problem with Boys . . . Is Actually a Problem with Men.” It’s a piece so powerful I’d recommend pediatricians print out copies and hand it to every new father they encounter. Chiarella summarizes his concerns that if you’re a boy in this country today:
You’re twice as likely as a girl to be diagnosed with an attention-deficit or learning disorder. You’re more likely to score worse on standardized reading and writing tests. You’re more likely to be held back in school. You’re more likely to drop out of school. If you do graduate, you’re less likely to go to college. If you do go to college, you will get lower grades and, once again, you will be less likely to graduate. You’ll be twice as likely to abuse alcohol, and until you are twenty-four, you are five times as likely to kill yourself. You are more than sixteen times as likely to go to prison.
Those of us who have witnessed this young male crisis know it’s not a boy thing. It’s a man thing. Boys don’t raise themselves—at least they’re not supposed to.
Naturally there is a vocal group of male defenders who say it’s all a mirage. They blame minority boys, claiming their scores lower the overall male average. While it’s true that black boys have the lower reading scores, that can’t account for the lack of white male participation in school activities, leadership positions, and graduation rates. The public schools in Maine are 96 percent white, yet the male- female achievement gap is among the five widest in the U. S. at both the high school and college levels.
The other excuses include: girls’ brains develop sooner; school rules are biased against male behavior; girls are naturally more organized than boys; and fathers are either absent or more interested in the scorecard than the report card. Some of those excuses have a kernel of truth in them, but they cannot account for the overall poor performance of so many boys at a wide range of ages in so many circumstances. But one of the explanations deserves more serious attention: the men who are supposed to raise boys—fathers.