Friday, July 06, 2012


David Brooks is the latest conservative to declare that there's a war against boys. In today's column, he imagines the typical boy as a rambunctious Prince Hal with the potential to become heroic Henry V -- if only the damn schools wouldn't crush his potential:
... suppose Henry went to an American school.

By about the third week of nursery school, Henry's teacher would be sending notes home saying that Henry "had another hard day today." He was disruptive during circle time. By midyear, there'd be sly little hints dropped that maybe Henry's parents should think about medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder....

By elementary school, Henry would be lucky to get 20-minute snatches of recess. During one, he'd jump off the top of the jungle gym, and, by the time he hit the ground, the supervising teachers would be all over him for breaking the safety rules. He'd get in a serious wrestling match with his buddy Falstaff, and, by the time he got him in a headlock, there'd be suspensions all around.

First, Henry would withdraw. He'd decide that the official school culture is for wimps and softies and he'd just disengage. In kindergarten, he'd wonder why he just couldn't be good. By junior high, he'd lose interest in trying and his grades would plummet.

Then he'd rebel....

This is roughly what's happening in schools across the Western world.
And now the assessment of blame:
The education system has become culturally cohesive, rewarding and encouraging a certain sort of person: one who is nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious. People who don't fit this cultural ideal respond by disengaging and rebelling.
And you know the result: Girls are doing better than boys in school! And in the workforce! It's all the education system's fault!

Except that, in between swipes at education practices in the West, Brooks says this in passing:
Some of the decline in male performance may be genetic. The information age rewards people who mature early, who are verbally and socially sophisticated, who can control their impulses. Girls may, on average, do better at these things.
Oh. Is that right? It isn't just the schools that discourage rambunctiousness, it's the age we live in?

So maybe the schools, however flawed their approach, are merely making a good-faith effort to prepare students -- boys and girls alike -- for the world they'll actually live in, one that, yes, does reward "people who mature early, who are verbally and socially sophisticated, who can control their impulses." (We don't have much use for people who lack self-restraint and verbally sophistication because we've outsourced most jobs requiring physical labor.)

Do schools overmedicate? Maybe our profit-hungry drug industry bears some responsibility for that. Do schools provide too little recess? Maybe we're misallocating resources that might be devoted to playtime out of a desire to rein in budgets and keep our precious tax rates low.

But if we want kids to be well-behaved, or at least to limit their rebellion to ironic ripostes, well, that's the society we've created. That's the economy we've created. The schools didn't create this economy -- they're just trying to respond to it.


Victor said...

Bobo's eying that shark, getting ready to jump it.

He's using a fictional representation of a historical figure to tell everyone what he thinks of the education system.

What's next?
Bugs Bunny talking about the R's health care proposal (if they ever get one)?
"Bugs - 'What's Up, Doc's?"

I'm glad you read him for me, Steve - I can't do anything but mock this feckin' idjit anymore - at long distance.

Lit3Bolt said...

Wait, bullies are good now? Yay for more Slate-style contraianism wrapped up as a deep thought (the Shakespearean allegory is always good for an illusion of deep thinking). Look at me, I'm play-acting as a centrist mulling over deep, ongoing, continual problems that can never be solved by increasing funding or constructive compromise, only by slashing budgets and assigning social blame.

Peter Janovsky said...

Complete and utter gobbledygook. Brooks is attacking the "values" ("disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious") that he usually preaches are lacking in those scruffy masses.

Instead of the Newberry model, Brooks apparently wants a "Hunger Games" model.

Dark Avenger said...

I don't know where Brooks went to school, but when I was in elementary school 5 decades ago, any "Prince Hals" would've been sent to the principals' office for acting out, and rightfully so.

Roger said...

Young Master Brooks was often sent home from school for holding his manhood cheap.

Dark Avenger said...

At least as an adult he's learned to only sell it dear.

Anonymous said...

As a dedicated progressive (no, I am NOT a liberal except on most social issues), I've got to side with Brooks on this one. We're raising a generation of docile employees who lack imagination, leadership ability, the desire to explore, or to stand up for their principles. This over-medicated, over-coddled generation that has been inculcated with far too much self-esteem and a need for constant reward for trivial acomplishements -- and even rewards for their utter failures -- cannot meet the challenges that will face them. As our environment collapses, the subsequent destruction of human habitat will require people with courage and brains and imagination and the desire to fight adversity in order to meet those challenges. We don't need more people who will simply go along to get along. We need people with brains and experience and courage. Our current educational system cannot and will not produce them, and Brooks has explained exactly why.

Boudica said...

Recess went bye-bye when standardized testing results (NCLB) came in. Teachers "need" that extra time to prep kids to take the tests.

Victor said...

or whatever:

Brooks spouts highly-polished gibberish to give cover for genuinely awful ideas, with horrible consequences for all but the wealthiest and most powerful.

Brooks is a useful idiot for the powers-that-be.
AKA - a tool.

He's the turd-polisher.

Which tool are you in their kit?

Anonymous said...

@Victor: I can't help it if the system screwed up my name, David Dickinson.

But what did Brooks say that was so wrong? You never said. All that you offered was a worthless, ad hominem attack and name-calling.

I don't like Brooks. It really irks me when NPR has him on, as if there's some chance he won't say anything to back the agenda of the privileged few. But in this case, it's those privileged few that he's against. They're the ones who are forcing our children throught these factories for docile employees rather than helping them to grow and learn and develop to their full potential.

The author minced his words in his last two paragraphs, almost conceding that what Brooks said was right. But, instead, he apologized for those factory schools as if they have nothing to do with the way they treat our children.

"Maybe" our profit-hungry drug industry bears some responsibility? That's pure B.S. It's been a long time since any major industry would not do anything -- including sacrificing lives -- for the sake of profit.

Little boys have one job: to explore and to learn. Sometimes, they're going to do that by jumping off the top of the monkey bars. Let's warn them about the danger, but when they do it anyway, let's not suppress their initiative or crush their desire to explore. Let's encourage them, instead. Let's guide them.

Good gosh, man! Scientists are starting to wonder if our species will even make it through this century! If we treat our children the way we have been, they won't have the mental tools they need -- initiative, courage, and experience -- to face the problems that our bad and uneducated decisions have created for them. They're going to have to be a lot smarter than their parents are if they're going to make it.

The last thing we should have as our top priority is worrying about making them well-behaved. If we treat them with respect and help them develop to their full potential, that cannot be a problem. But if we simply crush them into being good little boys and girls, we doom them to utter misery at best, and to possible extinction, at worst.

Let's do our kids a favor that we're not doing for them now: let's help them have the courage that their parents don't have. And let's help them to be smarter, too. Having those qualities, which our educational system does not help them develop today, is the only way that they'll be able to survive.

Steve M. said...

We're raising a generation of docile employees who lack imagination, leadership ability, the desire to explore, or to stand up for their principles.

Is that your personal experience of this generation? It's not mine -- or at least I'd say this generation is no worse than mine on any of those counts (I'm 53). I work with young people. They seem far more comfortable in their own skin than I was at their age, but, as a group, they don't seem appalling in any significant way.

I keep reading that they're a horrible, but I always wonder if every person who lists the flaws of the young got the list of flaws from the last published list of their flaws, not from personal encounters.

Victor said...

David Dickinson,
You say what you mean better in the 2nd comment - and far, far, FAR better than that pedantic @$$hole, Brooks.
Why the NY Times keeps that pedantic and insipid fool is beyond me - except that the Villagers loves them some Bobo.
I wouldn't piss on him if he was on fire.

And, like Steve, I don't think today's children are that much different than we were - except much more at ease with themselves and others.

We were more tribal, it seems to me. My group of best friends in JHS and HS (and ever since then) included an African American. We were looked at as weird for doing that. Most of the black kids sat by themselves at the lunch tables, just like the white kids sat by themselves. Ours was one of the few "mixed" tables.
And no one was gay - or at least talked about it. And certainly, no one ever admitted it. Gays were pariahs.
I had a long learning curve myself on that one. It wasn't until I started doing theatre in college, and then afterwards, where I met tons of gay men and women, that I learned that there was no difference between us - except that we preferred to boff other people.

When I taught in college back in the mid-late 90's, the kids were much more "mixed" - black, asian, hispanic, gay, etc.
And that was my experience when I was a trainer and met the young people who were coming into the company - they "mixed" a lot more readily than my generation did.
And this was in NC!!!

I have a lot of hope for the young people coming out of HS. Socially, I think they're far in advance of where we were at the same age.
What worries me, is their lack of knowledge about history, literature, and philosophy, among other things.

But isn't that what we older folks were always there for, like our parents and grandparents before us?

And sorry about the attack earlier - it was so hot and humid last night, I hardly slept.

Anonymous said...

@Victor You put your finger on it. It's right there in your own words. The children are well-behaved, but they can't think, and they can't deal with adversity.

Socially, they seem to mix well together, but if you examing their groups more closely, their foundations of their cliques are no different than ours were. They've simply been raised with so much "self-esteem" and the habit of giving and receiving praise, not merely for trivial things but for things that are simply expected of adults, that they are purely content as long as they are not challenged. But if you put a challenge in front of them, too often they freeze in confusion, frustration, and fear.

As you admitted, they don't have the knowledge ( -- or the thinking power that comes with exercising knowledge -- to meet the challenges that lie in their future. Their social interactions are certainly not any deeper than ours were. In many ways, they are much more shallow. Texting is a fundamental and important form of communication for them, but it is completely incapable of communicating anything but the most shallow of messages. Their immediate motives are certainly not any different ours were, but they lack sufficient knowledge to have any more developed curiosity or interest in anything but short-term concerns.

They have not learned critical thinking ( They are certainly less empathetic than previous generations ( They have not learned how to tell truth from falsehood, and they have not learned how to learn ( Logic means nothing to them ( How they feel is most important (, yet they don't even realize that feelings are a decision that they can change.

It is not in the corporation's interest that they be able to think critically or to understand when they're being fed propaganda. It is in the corporation's interest that they feel good no matter what they are told to do.

I realize that I am making gross generalizations here, but these characteristics are shared by large numbers of young people. These products of factory schools are very different from those of us raised in more demanding environments. These kids have not been challenged. Instead, they've been given blue ribbons for failure. We can predict how their society will respond when climate change destroys their habitat and economic catastrophe crushes them.

I just hope the nerds can pull them through it.

Anonymous said...

How about: the first time little Hal beat up a classmate, his parents (being royalty, after all) threatened to sue the school board unless accommodations were made for his special condition; later, he turned out to be good at sports (although there was that unfortunate incident with the firing of the coach who benched him for being a ball hog) so the school ignored the way he and his pal Falstaff kept throwing other kids' notebooks in the toilet.

Shorter Brooks: we've become such bad followers we're stifling out born leaders (and of course we know who they are) in their cribs. Gad, what shite.

Anonymous said...

@flarenut Brooks did not say that we're bad followers. He said that all that our schools are producing are well-behaved employees. I think they're doing that job excellently, don't you agree?

Anonymous said...


I'm reading this in conjunction with his column of few weeks ago. You know, as if he had a coherent set of things he was saying.

And I'm really not sure what our schools are producing. The kids I know are way too diverse to generalize about. I do worry about the effects of teaching to the test, but I think Brook's thesis is crap; else we wouldn't keep having bullied kids killing themselves.

Anonymous said...

The suicidal bullied kids phenomenon is easy to understand. There are patterns to the stories. Favored, "well-behaved" kids raised with too much praise and no education in empathy think that they're better than other, often smarter kids who are not given the same praise by an establishment that does not tolerate anyone who strays outside their overly restrictive boundaries.

Look at the reports. Too often, the stories go something like this:

The kid who committed suicide had minor run-ins with authority when they did something creative but not desired (for good or ill) by that authority. Publicly humiliated, they became victims of less imaginative or motivated kids. So they went to the authority that put them in that position to ask for protection from the bullies, but they were denied that protection. Officially, the bullies were classified as "well-behaved". In some cases, the bullied children were even punished when they they tried to defend themselves from the bullies.

Look at the reports. There are glaring similarities among them.

How often are "misfits" simply bored in school? Damned near always. They're not challenged, and they're not permitted to go exploring on their own. And the rest of the kids think it's okay to just slide by as long as they're "well-behaved" when the authorities are looking at them.

It's also a conundrum: Modern education focuses on controlling behavior while shell-shocked teachers in schools where student behavior actually can be a problem don't have the authority to enforce discipline. The result is that, in neither safe nor in unsafe schools, actually useful teaching and learning becomes a much lower priority than behavior.

Another thing: Does anyone really believe anymore that the tests we focus on actually measure student learning and give meaningful results as to teacher performance? There can no longer be any reason to believe that. The tests have quite another purpose: to divert from actual teaching. The less time that teachers spend teaching and the more they focus on the formulaic, tightly structured, and limited requirements of the tests, the less time their students can spend in actual learning. Teachers are told to focus on praise, not on actual guidance. Meanwhile, the test enforcers can use the results of declining test scores to shift money from where it needs to be to where they want it to be.

Our schools are much worse than anyone wants to admit. We are failing to educate our students because of deliberate policies to NOT educate them. The result is the problems that we have in our country today. Our modern education system is a dismal failure, and our children will suffer because of it.

This is a desperate situation, an emergency condition, and we're not doing anything to fix it.