10/07/2014 02:26 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2014

Not Daring to Disturb the Universe

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It's an old maxim of teaching that one always works within the worldview of students, since what they can't see doesn't exist. So one tries to look through their eyes to broaden their horizons and help them see more.

There's another maxim that half of knowledge is posing just the right question. The best way to do this when teaching middle-class high school boys is keeping in touch with one's own adolescent memories to rekindle that fire, wonder, alienation, transfiguration, confusion, mystery, despair, metaphysical hunger, or whatever storms buffeted one about during one's own youthful odyssey-years.

One tries to see what they see, but also what they don't see, can't see, and may not want to see, but must see to move forward. With today's middle-class boys, however, this is a glacially slow and tedious process.

Although all good kids, many seem to exhibit little self-reliance or independence of mind, only a curious caution about playing it safe, a Prufrockian timidity in not wanting, indeed, not daring "to disturb the universe" by raising questions or asserting themselves.

So passive and dependent are they about what others may think, or think about them were they to think differently, so accustomed are they to existing in groups that they hardly seem capable of acting alone as free agents. Asked to venture an opinion, they become catatonic or confused, lacking any sense of a personal self.

They exist as fragments of a group-soul, blissfully and unashamedly taking their cue from the pack. They seem unaccustomed to spending time alone thinking or reading, but are continually driven to lead virtual lives by texting or communing with Facebook, which validates them as parts of a whole.

This is something new to the teaching profession -- dealing with high-school juniors and seniors with scant evidence of autonomy or an inner core.

Everything seems always to have been done for them in sparing them effort; even their questions seem pre-chewed and digested.

So used to being micromanaged at home, they expect to be spoon-fed by teachers, who when weaning them from such childish dependence, encounter only fevered demands for step-by-step guidance.

Many can't figure things out for themselves and wonder why life doesn't come with a book of instructions. They don't understand that struggle and tears are at the essence of life.

They look upon school and the life of the mind as pointless because middle-class life has made them so comfortable.

In college-prep courses with outside reading and critical-thinking assignments, they want to transfer to an easier class.

Parents wanting a demanding program likewise complain that such courses are too time-consuming for their children, who have other classes, are involved in sports, the school play, or work after school.

But don't these parents want standards? Of course, they want standards, but standards without tears.

While there are parents who are grateful when courses challenge their children, many are not and "enable" them to secure good grades with little effort at all.

In my experience as a teacher, girls aren't as affected, are more mature and pro-active than boys, more self-reliant and focused, taking greater pains to distinguish themselves. They are much more at ease with open-endedness, ambivalence, ambiguity and paradox; more nuanced, emotionally honest and insightful, especially about the emotional dimension of literary characters, and see life more holistically than boys.

Boys need conceptual clarity, structure, and logical organization to feel at ease, are overly cerebral in trying to understand human nature, tend not to listen, come at everything with preconceived notions, and if facts fail to correspond to their theories, so much the worse for the facts.

They would do well to recall the words of that old Chinese detective of 1930s movie fame, Charlie Chan, who when asked whether he had arrived at a theory about the crime, oracularly quipped, "Theory like mist on glasses. Obscure facts."

One gets the impression that a large number of middle-class boys have been raised in aseptic enclaves far removed from the healthy rough-and-tumble of a normal boy's life.

They seem devoid of any sense of life's tragic dimensions, its defeats and sorrows, so sequestered and shielded do they appear, without experience of anything not on the program of their over-organized, over-supervised, and over-protected lives, as they are chauffeured, chaperoned, and allowed an occasional run on the leash of their cellphone.

Sadly, mothers cling to their sons beyond the age when boys in the past were always given a freer rein and left alone to be boys. Even sadder is that these boys don't seem to notice, let alone resent, such maternal intrusion.

But, saddest of all, is that some already seem fated never to break away toward unconquered worlds to hammer out upon the anvil of life a personal identity or make a mark for themselves. At 18, they are already defeated and broken.

Very little of a venturesome spirit, a fierce hunger for life, a desire to stake out for themselves an independent existence can be detected, so defanged and domesticated, so tentative and timorous are these modern young men who seem never to have felt the wild fever of youth. There are, of course, the exceptions, but these very exceptions trumpet the norm.

One cannot imagine them among those free-booting conquistadors of old, who, with courageous abandon, cut a wide swath through the resistance of life, since they'd feel compelled to check in at home for daily instructions, where "the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo."

And rare is the boy who seems to spend time with his father, who decades ago always found time to talk to his son as only a father can about life, becoming a man, and passing along the hard-won wisdom of fathers to sons since time out of mind.

Granted, there are separated and divorced fathers who would like nothing more than to spend more time with their sons, but cannot, or fathers whom bad times have compelled to work longer hours.

But there are also fathers at home who spend little time with their sons, some of whom seek out teachers in school as substitute fathers "to talk about things."

What is happening today to boys in our culture? Where are their fathers, so crucial in the lives of sons in ways that a mother will never understand? Many boys are lost and adrift, and ache for a father's steadying hand.