Suzanne Fields
Once upon a time, women complained that everything in the culture favored men, that it began when men and women were boys and girls. Boys got the advantage in kindergarten and kept it through high school and into their college years. Boys were more active than girls, and teachers called on them for recitation more often than girls.

That was in the long ago. Teachers usually call on girls first now because they're more likely to have the answer. Girls typically score higher on reading tests.

The Center on Education Policy assessed the differences in reading scores between girls and boys and found the poor performance of boys "the most pressing gender-gap issue facing our schools." Nor is it an underclass or minority disparity. The lower scores of boys are found in every ethnic and socio-economic groups, including the privileged white children of college-educated parents.

The researchers were not shocked, but surprised that sex trumped sociology. Books aimed at the boy market have encouraged boys to avoid good storytelling. But there are enough copies of "Captain Underpants," "Butt Books" and volumes like "SweetFarts" to supply a potty-mouth boy the coursework for a Ph.D. in bathroom humor, as a boy moves from days of innocent flatulence through the unrestrained excess of puberty.

Authors and their publishers had the idea that to get boys to read they had to meet them where they live, in a scatological world of their own making. That approach created other problems.

"If you keep meeting a boy where he is, he doesn't go very far," says Thomas Spence, president of Spence Publishing Co., noted for its quality books with a traditional bent, in The Wall Street Journal. "One obvious problem with the SweetFarts philosophy of education is that it is more suited to producing a generation of barbarians and morons than to raising the sort of men who make good husbands, fathers and professionals."

The author Kay Hymowitz puts it succinctly in "Man-up," a book about the man who won't grow up. "Crudity," she says, "is at the heart of the child-man persona."

The culture once educated children to learn about what's right and wrong, what's in good taste, what's vulgar and coarse, and no apologies. Children were introduced to a world where adults expected them to respect cultural literacy. They learned to appreciate the aesthetic power and entertainment of a good story well told.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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