After two generations of concern scrupulously focused on girls — their education in all its many manifestations, their alleged victimization by male dominance, their brain development, their sorrows and strengths and even the word employed to describe them (are they not, after all, young women?) — boys are coming in for new attention.
Applause, please. Yet at this late hour, with masculinity so politically incorrect, the task at hand is Augean.
These observations are prompted by data, anecdotal observation, and the summer publication of “The Dangerous Book for Boys” — a tome wildly successful here and, earlier, in England.
The data are devastating: schoolyard murder, emotional shutdown, soaring rates of male suicide, a plummeting male presence in the academy. According to the Department of Education, boys trail girls in literacy skills by one and one-half school years, are less committed to studying, and are less likely to go to college. An indicator: In 1970, precisely 57 percent of those graduating from college were males; today the percentage is 41 — and heading steeply south.
Disproportionately high percentages of boys are designated “discipline problems” parents and teachers can’t handle. So to calm their behavior, the obstreperous get put on Ritalin — the high-tone name for a low street drug called “speed.”
A view of today’s climate of anomie finds too many among our young male cohort tentative, unfocused, bored. Rising divorce and illegitimacy leave more and more solo mothers raising boys — and this in an otherwise feminizing culture too often removing fathers from the daily contact sons especially need, especially in a society so depreciating manliness.
In the words of the always perceptive Midge Decter (author of, for instance, “The Liberated Woman & Other Americans”): Infantilized, deprived (“despite the ease” into which they are born), and “standing at the tail-end of a veritable whirlwind of anti-male sentiment that has been sweeping through the country for decades,” American boys “have been left with scarcely any good way either to be wholly themselves or to be assured they are indeed on the way to becoming men.”
So onto this tortured landscape, as a partial remedy for (Decter’s words) this suppression of “the natural condition of boys,” principal author Conn Iggulden and his brother Hal have dropped “The Dangerous Book for Boys.”
Why that most interesting word in the title — “dangerous”? If girls are task-completers, boys are risk-takers. Conn Iggulden:
“It’s about remembering a time when danger wasn’t a dirty word. It’s safer to put a boy in front of a PlayStation for a while, but not in the long run. The irony of making boys’ lives too safe is that later they take worse risks on their own. You only have to push a baby boy hard on a swing and see his face light up. It’s not learned behavior — he’s hardwired to enjoy a little risk.”
The Iggulden’s book is a reaching back, yes — a cross (sort of) between William McKeever’s dour 1913 classic “Training the Boy” and (until recent dismal dilutions) the Boy Scout Handbook. Moral and ethical teaching combined with essential information and fascinating data, paeans to heroes (remember them?), and abundant how-to — how to do things that long have defined boys taking risks and being boys. Iggulden again:
“Boys are different from girls. Teaching them as though they are girls who don’t wash as much leads to their failure in school, causing trouble all the way. Boys don’t like group work. They do better on exams than they do in coursework, and they don’t like class discussion. In history lessons, they prefer stories of Rome and of courage to projects on the suffragettes. . . . The dark side of masculinity may involve gangs and aggression, but there’s another side — self-discipline, wry humor, and quiet determination.”
Feminists who would condition us all may argue that boys are doing no worse than before — it only seems that way because girls, liberated at last, are doing better; the real crisis facing boys, they say, is that they’re not enough like girls. Yet something is rendering boys enervated and effete; something is sapping their energy. Midge Decter notes a “shying away from their instinctive restlessness and competitiveness, and, with it, a fading of whatever happened to be the standards of gallantry.”
Maybe it’s the feminist revolution. Maybe it’s divorce and single(-mother) families. Maybe it’s our Spockian mores of child-rearing. Maybe it’s an outgrowth of the relativism that no longer finds innate goodness in America — and so worth defending, and its enemies worth fighting — and likewise no longer recognizes, or values, the goodness inhering in boys.
And so into a culture relentlessly finding the normal abnormal and exalting the abnormal as normal, the Igguldens ride “to free boys to be themselves again” and call upon boys to rally to their “dangerous” standard — a standard dangerous for declaring it’s OK to be a normal boy doing normal boy things. Long may it wave.