Problems With American Boys Book Review

Excerpt from Book Review :

Boys Adrift

Book Critique on the book boys adrift

Book critique: Boys Adrift

For many years, there was a great deal of concern expressed about the poor performance of girls in schools. Although girls often excelled during the early grades, boys tended to edge out girls in terms of grades and on standardized tests, particularly in the sciences and math. However, girls have begun to catch up with their male counterparts in the wake of the influence of the feminist movement, which has profoundly changed the ways in which women are educated and viewed by the educational system. Now women are beginning to surpass their male counterparts according to some indicators such as college attendance. Women have not yet become able to earn as much money as men for the same work but their role in society has clearly changed. This has provoked a great deal of anxiety amongst some authors as indicated in the title of Leonard Sax's book Boys Adrift. The subtitle of the book The five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men underlines Sax's central thesis which is that boys, rather than girls, should be the primary concern of efforts to improve relations between children and the school system.

Sax makes frequent use of dialogue and anecdotes to drive his point home when outlining his 'five factors.' He quotes one father as saying: "The schools have become feminized. The only adult male at my son's elementary school is the janitor. The teachers all want the students to sit still and be quiet. For some boys, that's not easy" (Sax 2009: 4). The idea that this is a new development, however, seems somewhat questionable, given that female teachers have always dominated the elementary school environment and, if anything, the value of sitting still and quiet in one's chair was more rather than less emphasized in previous decades. However, Sax defends his position that something has changed by saying that modern boys are not only school avoidant (as they always have been) but also don't have much in the way of passion for anything outside of school with the possible exception of violent video games (Sax 2009: 7).

Sax is careful to say that neither boys nor girls are inherently inferior to one another, that they are merely different. His critical 'first factor' in terms of how the genders differ lie in the fact that girls tend to cognitively develop at a much faster rate than boys, leaving boys behind in the earlier grades. Five-year-old boys might just not be ready to read (Sax 2009: 18-19). Girls are more inherently capable of being able to do what the kindergarten teacher wants them to do and thus they meet with more approval, success, and have more positive feelings about school overall. Sax strongly approves of the idea of starting boys later in kindergarten whenever possible, which 'sets them up for success' and ensures that their ability to pay attention in class is better aligned with their current academic skill set. "Once they get off to a bad start, things can snowball in the wrong direction. One year can make a big difference" (Sax 2009: 81).

The second factor is cultural, not biological, namely the new fascination with video games of today's young men. These video games suck young boys into an alternative, parallel universe that cuts them off from conventional social interactions and prevents them from developing normal, age-appropriate relations in the real world. As a result they are not properly socialized. Young boys have less intrinsic motivation to be social than girls and more of a fascination with violence. The ways in which such games cater to the reward center of the player is particularly toxic for young boys. This saps away their motivation to succeed at other endeavors. This is why so many parents say: "my son doesn't care about school at all, but he can work incredibly hard at something that he does care about. He'll stay up till two in the morning to get to the next level in SpyHunter. He just doesn't care about school" (Sax 2009: 55).

In short, the current environment virtually sets young boys up for failure by requiring them to perform tasks they are not developmentally capable of performing and creating a world which is filled with distractions and is designed to make concentrating on school and other forms of socially responsible interactions nearly impossible. The result of this is factor three, namely the epidemic of labeling boys as 'ADHD' or problem children and treating them with medication. However, Sax questions whether the epidemic of ADHD is a true epidemic at all, arguing "there's some evidence that many five-year-old boys are less ready and less able to sit for long periods of time than most five-year-old girls are" (Sax 2009: 81). What would have happened if Tom Sawyer had been alive today, asks Sax? He would likely have been diagnosed with ADHD. True, medication seems to work initially. However, eventually the child develops a tolerance for the drug. Also, if he must be taken off the drug because of its side effects, the withdrawal of the stimulant results in even more impulsivity and inattentiveness than before, effectively making the child drug dependent on medication to survive very early on in his life.

The fourth and perhaps the oddest and most controversial factor raised by Sax are the endocrine disorders possibly caused by plastics and other chemicals in the water system and in our foods. There is clear, incontrovertible evidence that children are undergoing puberty at far earlier ages than in previous years. Sax draws a link between early menarche in girls and the feminization of boys and the preponderance of these chemicals. Oddly enough, he notes, these chemicals "mimic the action only of female hormones" (Sax 104). Thus both boys and girls are awash with these chemicals that affect their development. Sax also seems to subtly imply that the feminization of boys is creating less manly, masculine boys because boys are less likely to be involved in competitive sports than years ago while girls (also thanks to Title IX) are more likely to be so. In defense of his chemically-based thesis, he also suggests that the fact that children -- both boys and girls -- are more overweight than previous generations is also likely rooted in changes in our chemical environment, not simply over-eating and not exercising enough (although this would seem to somewhat contradict his thesis that all boys do nowadays is sit around and play video games).

The final factor which Sax suggests has led to a generation of boys being 'adrift' is a failure to launch, or his sense that boys are permanently mired in adolescence. Oddly enough, Sax uses as an anecdotal example to support this idea that no one wants to be a plumber anymore -- he notes that girls 'biologically' have a more sensitive sense of smell than males but says that boys are unwilling to work because they simply do not have the 'stick-to-it-ness' of previous generations. This section, perhaps more so than any other, highlights the problem of Sax's argument-via-anecdote. The devaluation of manual labor is not necessarily something specific to males and may be a reflection of the desire of more Americans (rightly or wrongly) to live the white collar ideal. Secondly, the idea that girls do not want to be plumbers (despite the fact that plumbers earn a considerable annual salary) is attributed to innate, biological characteristics of females rather than the fact that girls are still influenced by socially-constructed notions of gender. Sax waxes nostalgic: "forty years ago, even thirty years ago, there was no shame in a young man choosing a career in the trades" (Sax 2009: 123). To blame this solely on…

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