Gut Checks: They’re What’s Missing in Childhood Education

Jace Yarbrough: After growing up under the 20th century nanny state, at least half of us need a good punch in the nose.

It might not be obvious but America’s underperforming male students are a symptom of good intentions (however fundamentally laudable) blown out of proportion: i.e. a desire to guard our children from harmful experiences. Lately I’ve been preoccupied with the idea that we humans need what we want (e.g. to avoid harmful experiences) about as much as we need a hole in the head, and comparatively low male academic performance might support that thought.

One of the premises of the argument I opened with is that boys need physical pain in order to mature. We’ve all noticed that topics of conversation for boys/men often center on physically painful or terrifying experiences. We talk about puking up our guts during football practice, or when we got that scar, or how we almost died hiking Pikes Peak in late October with 3-4 feet of snow on the ground (and how we’re glad we did), or what it was like to defend Bastogne in 1944. We talk about those awful times because their awfulness makes them somehow good. Good? Yes: these horrible experiences confirm something universal and something particular that every boy needs in order to grow up.

First, the universal something. A line from Terrence Malick’s latest film, The Tree of Life, articulates it well. The subject of the film, a thirteen year-old boy who’s slowly discovering the pain and perversity of the world, asks God with inquisitive defiance and not a little anger, “Why do I have to be good if you’re not?” Behind that question there are some important realizations: things aren’t the way they ought to be, I’m not the way I ought to be, and that makes me mad. For boys, physical hardship is an acknowledgement of those realities and a way to deal with the associated frustration. It’s rather fortuitous then that many (but perhaps not enough) of us find ourselves performing physically brutal tasks (e.g. roofing or hauling hay in August, in Texas, at noon) right around the time we’re making these realizations. That kind of labor is a healthy and even refreshing reminder that somehow I (or we, which includes I) am responsible for the hardship.

Second, the particular something. For whatever reason, overcoming physical hardship is a huge confidence builder for boys. One of my buddies, whom I greatly respect, owns his own construction company, but he’s had some trouble finding able and motivated workers. He had this to say about a knowledgeable 19-year-old employee who lacked self-assurance: “I wish I could take him out back and beat the tar out of him. That’d fix the problem.” As strange as it sounds, my friend was probably right. There’s a calm assurance that accompanies a man who’s been knocked in the dirt and then recovers.

Unfortunately our educational system doesn’t allow for this kind of growth, much less incorporate it, and safety precautions regulating play on the jungle gym aren’t the only culprit. Consider that the thoughts and reactions boys tend to have in everyday life are rarely acknowledged, whether by the characters in their literature, their teachers, or their parents. When a boy sees a pie he wants to hit someone in the face with it; when he sees a rock he wants to hit something that will shatter; when he sees a gun he wants to shoot it. Not that this behavior should be praised, quite the contrary, but it should be recognized as expected (not acceptable) and then re-directed toward praiseworthy ends. When does a boy ever get the slightest clue that anyone else has the same desires he does? He’s told that everyone is nice and likes to share their toys.

I probably wouldn’t do very well either if my internal frustrations were hushed away and my only outlet for relief was a set of monkey bars I wasn’t allowed to climb on.

Jace Yarbrough
Jace is a member of the Humane Pursuits editorial board. He is a life-long Texan and is currently a JD candidate at Stanford Law School. Before heading out to California he served in the Air Force, taught AP Calculus in Honduras, studied at the John Jay Institute for Faith, Society and Law (www.johnjayinstitute.org), and earned his B.A. in Government and B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. He enjoys all things old and dust-covered, and his favorite pastime is reading to his wife, son, and daughter.

5 Comments

  • July 24, 2012

    foolishconfidence

    So in your mind how would a King David fit in this mold?

  • Jace Yarbrough
    July 24, 2012

    Jace Yarbrough

    That’s a good question. Initially my thoughts go to his being trusted to defend his father’s flock at a young age, and then of course there’s his confrontation with Goliath. Where you thinking along those lines, or did you have something else in mind?

  • September 26, 2012

    Ellen

    I’m very interested in this topic, as a (female) teacher of middle school boys. What would you say are those proper channels into which I should be directing their more violent tendencies? I have them do push ups for detentions and have often noticed that there is a strange sort of satisfaction rather than resentment that results at the end of 20 minutes of exertion.

  • Jace Yarbrough
    September 30, 2012

    Jace Yarbrough

    Ellen, What a challenge to be a teacher today (my wife is as well); thank you for your service.

    Great idea, using push ups as a form of punishment. Do you find that it can still serve as an effective deterrent given the “strange sort of satisfaction” that results?

    In answer to your question, I think students (esp. males) need to be told what their place in the story of their civilization is; it gives them more motivation to perform difficult tasks if they know what’s expected of them and have previous examples to follow. Competitive or martial (and by that I do not mean overbearing or barbaric) stories are perhaps a good place to start. I’ve tried to outline an example of what I have in mind below.

    A lesson in geography, history, and mathematics might have students playing a simplified form of the popular game Risk. For younger students the scenario might be as simple as giving each a set number of soldiers, one stationed in Germany the other in France, then having them roll dice in “battle.” Rules can be devised so that each army takes casualties equal to the sum total of the dice rolled by its opponent; (or the product of the two dice rolled, or the truncated quotient of the larger divided by the smaller, etc.). Ties always go to the defender, because men fight harder for their home than they do to destroy the homes of others. Geographic/technological advantages could be incorporated here, (e.g. Germany’s superior tanks remove the advantage usually enjoyed by the defender). Elephant pieces might be used to represent, say 5 soldiers, so a little algebra is thrown in if a player has only an elephant left and takes 2 casualties. (You get the idea.)

    The same idea could be used for more advanced subjects (e.g. basic trigonometry). Dice roll could be replaced with small cannons that can be set to a specific angle of incidence with the horizontal (admittedly difficult to acquire). Students defeat their opponents by actually knocking them down with a well calculated cannon shot. The more realistic the terrain, the better. Someone trying to invade Switzerland soon realizes how important geography can be in war.

    I’m skeptical of teaching tools that pretend to be educational just because the armies involved have historical significance, so what I have in mind would make the skills being taught part and parcel of a winning strategy.

    Hope this helps.

  • October 16, 2012

    Ellen

    Thank you for the detailed response. I will see how I can work some of these ideas into my curriculum. I teach Literature, so there is no lack of great stories. I’m thinking this year of trying to read “Henry V” with them as they really liked the Crispin’s Day speech I showed them last year. It is amazing how they work when plastic swords are involved.

    Yes, the push ups do work. It’s that immediate consequence that boys seem to need, with not a whole lot of discussion. Also, it is very fair. Everyone does the same thing and there is no humilitation involved. The satisfaction I see is, I think, from seeing justice served. Then we all move on and get over it… until they do something else stupid, anyway.