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Always Worrying About Boys

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Worrying about boys is an older American pastime than baseball.

New York Times columnist David Brooks may not realize it, but when he recently bemoaned the state of American boys, he joined a long line of despairing worriers about American manhood.

James W. Chesebro, professor of communication at Ball State University, notes that "From an historical perspective, the last 145 years or so in the United States have reflected an ongoing struggle regarding the meaning and scope of masculinity, or how men have defined themselves and who they have said are manly and therefore part of their group."

In the aftermath of the civil war, industrialization changed the face of work, and the closing of the frontier ended the dream that a man could always pull up stakes and move west to a new life. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner noted that "The dominant fact of American life has been expansionism." As such, people worried that the end of the frontier would also mean the end of the ideal of the unfettered American man.

The Golden Age of manhood ended, and in its place arrived an enduring nostalgia for the days when men were men. As sociologist Michael Kimmel points out, before the civil war, 88 percent of American males were small farmers, tradesmen or artisans. By 1910, less than one third of men were self-employed.

And more and more people lived in cities, which came to be associated with culture, education and femininity. No less a sage than Henry James wrote in The Bostonians that "The whole generation is womanized. The masculine tone is passing out of the world. It's a feminine, nervous, chattering canting age."

David Brooks' recent column looked back to Shakespeare's warrior king Henry V as an "ideal" man. In the late 19th century, many men similarly turned to admiration of oriental warriors, as exemplars of a more idealized manhood than what they saw around them.

Of course, part of that manhood was mayhem and murderous rage. Shakespeare's Henry gave fabulous speeches -- "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers" -- but the real guy turned the battlefield into a butchery. At Agincourt, thousands of the French enemy had surrendered -- so many that the British worried that they could overcome their own forces. Many British officers refused to consider disposing of the prisoners, considering it a dishonorable action towards men who had laid down their arms. So Henry dispatched some 200 archers to slaughter the hapless French prisoners.

Given the misery that bloodthirsty males have heaped on their fellow humans throughout history, why do we so pine for them when we worry about men?

Like Henry James, David Brooks worries that the masculine virtues are being lost in modern society, especially schools. He echoes the worries of earlier scribes who said that too much school was feminizing men. That's what led -- at least in part -- to the founding of the Boy Scouts in 1910.

Brooks argues that schools reward a certain type of student; one who can listen, focus, and work with others (Read: Girls). True. But who says boys can't do this?

Some people suggest that boys have very different brains from girls and have inherently weaker verbal skills. They should be given "informational texts" to read instead of the classics or any material containing emotion, which they aren't good at either. Leonard Sax, president of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, suggests that literature teachers should not ask boys about characters' emotions but should focus only on what the characters actually do.

But science is proving that none of this is true. The alleged great differences between the brains of boys and girls are a myth. Lise Eliot, associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School, did an exhaustive review of the scientific literature on human brains from childhood to adolescence. She reports in her book Pink Brain, Blue Brain that there is "surprisingly little evidence of sex differences in children's brains."

As for boys' inability to handle emotion, that's another canard. In fact, boys have to learn to suppress emotions, and too often our culture instructs them well. Harvard psychiatrist William Pollack, the author of Real Boys, notes that our strict "boy culture" demands emotional rigidity, and by the second grade erodes the interpersonal skills that come naturally to boys. He says that boy babies are actually more expressive and vocal than girl babies. "We now have executives paying $10,000 a week to learn emotional intelligence. These [sessions] actually target skills boys were born with."

In his column, Brooks suggested that Prince Hal (The future Henry) would not do very well in American schools. Unfortunately, his column may give ammunition to those who want to set up dumbed down classrooms geared to boys' supposed weaknesses.

How much better, though, to challenge boys so that they can succeed in the new workplace in which communication, focus, determination and teamwork are key ingredients. Prince Hal could certainly learn these, were he around in 2012.

After, all, how much use is a broadsword in today's world?

Caryl Rivers is a professor of Journalism at Boston university. Her novel Virgins is being published online by Diversion press.