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Op-Ed: Work With Boys — Not Against Their Nature

We need to raise boys and girls to be caring and considerate human beings. If an 11-year-old girl wants to play football and has the ability to compete with the guys, then let her play. My guess is that most boys would agree — and if she is a great player, their desire to win will vanquish whatever urge they have to stereotype.

But integrating football teams in junior high so girls have more options is hardly the most pressing equity issue in education. Boys are now the have-nots in education. The real challenge for the nation’s schools is to make the classroom more inclusive — for boys.

The recent advances of girls and young women in society are cause for celebration. They should not, however, blind us to the large and growing cohort of poorly educated young men who will be lost in our knowledge-based economy. Boys in all ethnic groups and social classes are far less likely than their sisters to feel connected to school, to earn good grades, or to pursue education beyond high school.

College has never been more important to a young person’s life prospects. If current rates continue, campuses risk becoming like retirement villages, with a surfeit of women competing for a tiny handful of surviving men.

One way to address the college gap is to address the reading gap. Boys in all age groups score lower than girls on national reading and writing tests. A major studycommissioned by in the U.K. discovered, perhaps not surprisingly, that girls tend to prefer fiction, magazines and poetry while boys are more likely to prefer comics and non-fiction. Boys whose eyes glaze over if forced to read "Little House on the Prairie" may be riveted by the Guinness Book of Records. Boys will read material that interests them. The government in the U.K. now advises all teachers to keep an up-to-date list of books that have proved irresistible to reading-resistant boys.

Rather than try to change the basic nature of boys, why not work with who they are? Consider the all-too-typical case of Justin, a Southern California boy who loved science fiction, pirates and battles. An alarmed teacher summoned his parents to school to discuss a picture the 8-year-old had drawn of a sword fight — which included several decapitated heads. Justin was a well-behaved, normal little boy, but the teacher expressed grave concern about Justin’s values. The boy’s father was astonished, not by his son’s drawing — typical boy stuff — but by the teachers lack of sympathy for his son’s imagination. If boys are constantly subject to disapproval for their interests and enthusiasms they are likely to become disengaged and lag further behind.

Girls may be on the wrong side of the junior high school football gap, but boys are lagging when it comes to far more consequential divides. And closing those gaps does not entail treating conventional boyishness as a pathology in need of a cure. It means working with, not against, the young male imagination.

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