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.