Why Boys Are Failing

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When he was 13 years old, a mere boy was effectively the American ambassador to Russia, in Saint Petersburg. This was because the lad was fluent in French while his nominal superior, the ambassador himself, was not. The boy had already, at his father’s instruction, translated works of Plutarch from Greek and poems by Horace from Latin. His name was John Quincy Adams.

When Gian Carlo Menotti was 11 years old, he wrote his first opera, both the libretto and the music: The Death of Pierrot. You may know him for his popular opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. His first formal training in music came when he entered the Milan Conservatory, at age 12.

When he was 14 years old, Srinivasa Ramanujan discovered the general solution to quadratic equations (those of the form ax^4 + bx^3 + cx^2 + dx + e = 0), which had evaded mankind until 1540. Without formal instruction, the boy had already mastered college level mathematics. In this respect, as in his deeply religious sensibility, he was like Pascal—who, according to his sister, played with conic sections when he was a small child.

When he was 15 years old, a very bright Jewish boy living in New York City left school to work for his family’s jewelry company. He worked hard and became a vice president, but his real love was poetry. Eventually he left the company and went to Europe to study for three years on his own. His name was Louis Untermeyer, and he was for several generations the single man most responsible for bringing poetry to American schoolchildren.

When he was 13 years old, Thomas Edison, who had hardly ever gone to school but was taught mainly by his mother and through his own reading, was earning fifty dollars a week selling newspapers and candy on the railroad trains in and out of Detroit. He used the profits to buy scientific equipment. He was well on his way to becoming the Wizard of Menlo Park.

When he was four years old, Liberace began to play the piano. At eight, he met the great Paderewski, whose techniques he had been studying assiduously. The two became friends ever after. The boy was his family’s main financial support during the Great Depression.

We might multiply examples forever, of boys doing things that astonished their elders: Mozart, Michelangelo, Bach, Haydn, Capablanca, Morphy, and Newton. And shall we forget Our Lord at age 12, spending a couple of days all by Himself in the Temple, engaging the rabbis in debate and stunning them with His questions and answers?

Where are these boys now?

I draw a conclusion that never occurred to me when I was younger. We have undertaken a great experiment unknown to any society until a hundred years ago. It is the education of boys en masse by women, always indoors and in the company of girls. I think we can say, with reservations, that the experiment has failed.

I’m not saying that no woman can teach boys, because that is obviously not true. Many a woman can do so very well. There are women who simply like boys and their ways, and who take no perverse delight in trying to force-feed them a feminine etiquette. Such women may prefer to teach Treasure Island to boys than to teach Anne of Green Gables to girls. They will know better than to expect boys to catch fire from stories of gossip and social climbing, however finely written. My observation is of a general truth, not a universal one.

I understand, too, that there is much blame to go around. If in other respects boys had a healthy world to grow up in, their often uninspiring experiences in the schoolroom would not harm them so much—if they all had a father in the home, for instance—but millions do not. If they spent most of their waking hours outdoors, exploring, hunting, fishing, and playing—but school, television, and computers have seen to that. If they were learning to plow the earth, cut down trees, dig wells, or lay pipes alongside older brothers and uncles—but where’s the opportunity, even supposing that the law would permit them to help? If they knew that excellence or competence were necessary for a good young lady to give them a second glance—but porn is a flick of the finger away.

For a long time, a still healthy world mitigated the effects of the experiment and masked the results. No longer. Nor will any demographic objections apply. We are comparing apples with apples. The boys come from the same homes as their sisters, the same schools, and the same social environment. Since the standard deviation for intelligence distribution among males is wider than among females, causing a “flatter” curve, with males dominating at both the high and the low end, we should expect somewhat more boys to enroll in college, not fewer. But we are not getting anything close to that. It is a terrible waste of mind and talent and energy, and it bodes ill for marriage. Feminists refute themselves performatively when they decline to marry men who are less competent than they are.

If we were talking about any other demographic group so obviously ill-served and so colossally underachieving, with neither poverty nor genetics nor social situation to plead even a specious excuse, there would be a national outcry. There is no such outcry, and this suggests a few things.

One is that nobody cares. If you hire a man to teach English in your school, and the girls languish because they can’t stand his manners or the things he chooses to teach, you let that man go; it’s his fault. If you hire a woman for the same job in the same place, and the boys languish because they can’t stand her manners or the things she chooses to teach, she keeps her job as long as she wants; it’s their fault. Again, I am speaking generally. If some individual boy or girl fails in your class, that may not be your fault. But if a whole group fails, you are not the person for that job.

Our carelessness implies, strangely enough, that we take patriarchy for granted. We speak and act as if boys must assume the entire responsibility for their failures. They are not granted the luxury of expressing anger or frustration. Crocodila feminista may shed big tears about how unfair it is to boys to tell them they must restrain or deny their hurt feelings—restraint that is in the emotional realm analogous to the restraint they must exercise in the physical realm, restraint without which a lot of weaker people would be hobbling around with black eyes. The same women shed no tears when they imply that boys must like Beloved or lump it. Rather, they seem content to have the boys check out in sullen silence, so they do not have to deal with them and their needs. They are like female pastors of Protestant congregations who, far from being ambitious to lead men in spiritual warfare, are relieved when men do not show up; a few older fellows to tend the roof, the boiler, and the driveway are all they need.

But what if we want the boys to fail? Not, of course, that this boy should fail, a motive that would be outright wicked. I mean that there’s something about how we live that fears the fearless man, the far-sighted man, the man for whom all the contemporary pieties are straw. To rob the house, you must bind the strong man first. Strong men and strong women make for strong families—for truly strong men and women honor strength in the other sex—and strong families can resist and threaten our overlords in politics, education, entertainment, and industry. The conformists of our time are all “revolutionary” in the same stale, dispirited way, ruining good, old things and then turning to structures of the masses to make up for it. For those in the middle classes and above, the result has been a life of cushioned mediocrity—one comfortable with the largely hidden hierarchies that keep man small and tidy, and fearful of the too near and personal hierarchies that can make man fit to participate in greatness.

However that may be, the facts speak for themselves. The experiment has failed. It is time for men to resume the responsibility to educate their sons.

Photo credit: Shutterstock.com

Anthony Esolen

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Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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