to walk worthily of the Lord, pleasing him in all respects

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

"...but Eustace had read none of the right books."

In an article entitled "Why Johnny won't Read," Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky discuss how the reading gap between school aged girls and boys has recently increased markedly . After review recent studies, they observe:

Placed in historical perspective, these findings fit with a gap that has existed in the United States since the spread of mass publishing in the mid-19th century. But for the gap to have grown so much in so short a time suggests that what was formerly a moderate difference is fast becoming a decided marker of gender identity: Girls read; boys don't.

What might be causing this division? Perhaps what children are expected to read in schools has something to do with it.

Although one might expect the schools to be trying hard to make reading appealing to boys, the K-12 literature curriculum may in fact be contributing to the problem. It has long been known that there are strong differences between boys and girls in their literary preferences. According to reading interest surveys, both boys and girls are unlikely to choose books based on an "issues" approach, and children are not interested in reading about ways to reform society -- or themselves. But boys prefer adventure tales, war, sports and historical nonfiction, while girls prefer stories about personal relationships and fantasy. Moreover, when given choices, boys do not choose stories that feature girls, while girls frequently select stories that appeal to boys.

Unfortunately, the textbooks and literature assigned in the elementary grades do not reflect the dispositions of male students. Few strong and active male role models can be found as lead characters. Gone are the inspiring biographies of the most important American presidents, inventors, scientists and entrepreneurs. No military valor, no high adventure. On the other hand, stories about adventurous and brave women abound. Publishers seem to be more interested in avoiding "masculine" perspectives or "stereotypes" than in getting boys to like what they are assigned to read.

At the middle school level, the kind of quality literature that might appeal to boys has been replaced by Young Adult Literature, that is, easy-to-read, short novels about teenagers and problems such as drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, domestic violence, divorced parents and bullying. Older literary fare has also been replaced by something called "culturally relevant" literature -- texts that appeal to students' ethnic group identification on the assumption that sharing the leading character's ethnicity will motivate them to read. There is no evidence whatsoever that either of these types of reading fare has turned boys into lifelong readers or learners. On the contrary, the evidence is accumulating that by the time they go on to high school, boys have lost their interest in reading about the fictional lives, thoughts and feelings of mature individuals in works written in high-quality prose, and they are no longer motivated by an exciting plot to persist in the struggle they will have with the vocabulary that goes with it.

I wonder whether modern education will produce the very result it seems so dramatically concerned to stop, a sort of intellectual dark ages where angry males (angry because they cannot communicate or problem solve - such gifts does reading impart) resort to physical force and brutishness. Or will modern education achieve its goal - where people do not cause "drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, domestic violence, divorced parents and bullying" but at the price of making all intellectual geldings. For some reason I am reminded of what the Dread Pirate Roberts said to Princess Buttercup - "Life is Pain; anybody who says otherwise is selling something."


Jared Cramer said...

If I hadn't had a mother who always took me to the library an encouraged my voracious reading habit, I am confident I wouldn't have many of the intellectual capacities that I put to work now. Unfortunately, not every child has such a parent and, as the article points out, the schools are failing in this area.

Oh, and you said intellectual geldings. That's clever.

Anonymous said...

I love science fiction. But in school, sci-fi was always looked down upon. My dad would buy me Star Wars novels every once in a while and occasionaly introduce me to great books like The Invisible Man. Why don't schools teach H.G. Wells as literature? Go figure.

Jared Cramer said...

Sorry for two posts, but I agree with anonymous. I learned more about the problems of philosophy from Isaac Asimov and Philip Jose Farmer than any two-bit young adult book.

Anonymous said...

mr. cox,
its one of your students. i chose to remain anonymous because you might be embarressed that your students read your blog. so this is a shout out to mr. cox-hes the bomb!!! i would have to agree with jared, my mom read to me every night when i was little as well as taking me to the library. without that i wouldnt be in the major i am. tootles.

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