The first in a series about educating boys today.


A ten year old boy, whom I watch with an eagle’s eye, is reading The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn and Hal Iggulden. The book is teaching him how to play poker, build a go-cart from scratch, how to fold a paper glider so that it really flies, to makes a paper water bomb and much, much more. He has found his Holy Grail. Wedged in between the book’s black arts are spirited short essays on heroic battles, good manners and, yes, girls. Be forewarned, gentle reader, this book is definitely not politically correct, and worse, it could turn around a boy’s life.

The 10-year-old I have in my sights is a busy home-schooler whose days and heart are torn between pitching in the town baseball league and his beloved violin. While a leader on the ball field and popular with his mates, I have to admit, he is sort of "out-of-it." When the talk moves from the ballgame to video games, the kid is a wash-out. When the conversations moves on to television, as it does regularly…(television and movies being the lingua franca of boys from six to that ever-moving outer boundary of adolescence)…, the boy is a dunce. He thinks "24" is the definition of a day. He wouldn’t recognise Paris Hilton if she tried to run him over. He’s focused on learning how to step into a pitch and to do something with his violin that I don’t comprehend.

He is clearly out of step with modern boydom. But how and when things changed for boys is hard for me to pin down. Somewhere not too long ago, boys went indoors. When they don’t have their eyes glued to some screen, whether computer, TV, movie or even, yes, cell phone, they are shuffling along alone or in sullen groups at the mall. Building tree huts and shooting at squirrels with beebee guns lost out big time to the latest version of Xbox and the newest action-adventure fantasy at the Cinaplex.

And they look so bored! How can a 12-year-old boy be that bored… unless he has been made so passive with canned pleasure that he doesn’t know what else to do. He has never learned to do anything other than turn on his toys. He doesn’t have the reading habit because DVDs are easier. He doesn’t play outside in the neighbourhood. First, the other guys aren’t there. They are indoors and are stuck to their own screens. Second, he and his peers’ parents are convinced that if he is outside, he’ll be kidnapped, beaten up by bullies or meet a recruiter from the North American Man Boy Love Association.

Our modern boy doesn’t get much exercise which you can tell from his rounded shoulders and the baby fat which he should have been shed years earlier. But how could he. He is driven or bussed to school for safety reasons. When he gets exercise it is part of an adult-saturated, over-organised sports world where physical contact between boys is only allowed when they are covered head-to-toe with enough protective gear to make movement barely possible. Arguments about whether a referee [yes, of course, they have to have referees] made the correct call is strictly verboten. A scuffle with another player could get him banned from the league and his anxious parents in the grandstands would be forced to live in infamy.

Other than manipulate the "on" and "off" switches, the volume controls and a few other knobs, modern boy doesn’t know how to do much. He has never had to do much and the men in his life have conveniently disappeared or are too busy with their work or their own pleasures that they have never taught him to do anything. He doesn’t know how to wash a car, saw wood, hammer a nail, trim a hedge, weed a garden [let alone raise a vegetable garden], bait a rat trap, or repair a punctured bike tire. Maybe with sufficient nagging, he can make his bed [sort of], take the dishes out of the dishwasher and put out the garbage, chores that in another day would have been the province of his sister.

Then there is school. In recent decades, no part of society has become more feminised, more boy-unfriendly. First of all, for young boys to sit quietly in desk seats for six or seven hours a day has long been contrary to the laws of nature. However, in the past, children walked to school in the morning, walked or run home for lunch and did the same at 3:00, only to get their ball and glove and work off the pent-up energy from the school day.

Second, there are fewer and fewer male teachers. The principalship, once the province of men, is now more and more the province of the fairer sex. Those male teachers that are left live in fear of intimacy or even putting a hand on a boy’s shoulder, lest they become a tort lawyer’s meal ticket.

Third, the academic ante has been raised in our schools. The stakes are higher and there is more and more pressure to get the children ready to compete in the global economy. That can be translated into students becoming more and more skilled at the manipulation of symbols, tasks at which our boys are not genetically endowed and, thus, are falling behind.

Most educators are scratching their heads at what is now called the "crisis of boys." On the other hand, girls are doing well. They outshine boys in all aspects of the symbol-driven world we live in. They get better grades and have higher aspirations. Girls outnumber boys in Advance Placement programs, in most math and science courses and in all extracurricular activities except sports. In 2006, girls represented 58 per cent of the student bodies at US colleges and universities.

It is little wonder that junior is in a funk. He is not living according to his nature, and while he may not know it, he can feel it. Somehow we have changed the way we live and while there appear to be many benefits, the way we are living is having disastrous effects on our boys. Given all the other crises facing the world, getting excited and making serous changes in how we raise our boys may not vault to the top of our collective priority list. But think about it. A nation without men, with only pleasure-saturated, spineless screen-watchers is a truly frightening prospect.

Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared recently on CBS's "This Morning", ABC's "Good Morning America", "The O’Reilly Factor", CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking on character education. He can be reached at kryan@bu.edu.

Kevin Ryan is a retired professor, living at the edge of Boston and of sanity. He was once a high school English teacher, but found the work too hard and became a professor of education....