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Investigate the Investigators

Back to School: Helping Boys Man-up in Reading

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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.

Both boys and girls learned to enjoy the "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" for both the fascinating horror of the tale as well as for the storyteller's artistry, the rhythms and sounds of words. They were easy to memorize and recite. In my random samples of children who have read the complete Harry Potter series, reveling in the magic, few have even heard of the classic poem by Samuel Coleridge. "Ancient Mariner" was once a staple of literature for both sexes.

Adolescent boys and girls have different sensibilities and sensitivities, but all can learn some of the same things. "The Ancient Mariner," like the plays of Shakespeare and the psalms of the Bible, are not gender-specific. Girls like romance more than adventure, and they devour these books. Girls read more fiction than boys. Some publishers believe the "Twilight" series about a teenage girl's romance with a vampire is popular with girls because it offers them a powerful argument to remain chaste through adolescence, "making chastity sexy," as one critic puts it, even though it's subject matter is bizarre. Girls simply don't get such encouragement in the popular culture.

The line on boys is that they don't want to read or talk about feelings. That may depend on what feelings we're talking about. "Lord of the Flies" tells a lot about the feelings of children. Both boys and girls find it fascinating when a teacher is imaginative enough to assign it.

It's clear to an observant parent, even without "the new study" to prove it, that boys are more restless, less mature, than girls of the same age. Their interests are different. Anyone can see what happens when boys and girls are grouped with their own sex. The baseball philosopher Yogi Berra said it best: "You can observe a lot just by watching."

Women earn more bachelor's and master's degrees than men, and they're gaining on men in the scientific professions. College admissions officials fear the "tipping point," where the majority of women on campus grows so large as to tip the perception of the institution to "a girls' school." Then college-bound boys will avoid it. It doesn't all start with reading, but starting with reading can be the beginning of turning things around. That's worth keeping in mind as the school bells ring across the land.

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