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Building Better Men (The Male Advantage–part 6)

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 18, 2012

There are of course things men can learn to do better.  There are ways we can steer some of our more aggressive impulses toward healthier ends (fewer murders, more jazz albums).  But let’s start by talking about how society can help.  It might seem obvious to say so, but characterizing masculinity as a failed brand of humanity just makes things worse.  It hurts men, because our self-worth comes largely from the idea that we play a useful and important part in the lives of the people around us.  It’s bad for women, too, because it leads men to live down to their low opinion. It’s bad even for a woman who wants to bypass nasty masculinity in favor of a hassle-free anonymous sperm donor.  Odds are better than even that she will give birth to little Mr. Wonderful.  And then the idea that males are a doomed gender will suddenly seem unbelievably short-sighted.

We are not a doomed gender, just a little raucous and disruptive.  And society can work with that, first by treating the educational system as if the male half of the classroom also matters.  At Mt. Carmel High School for boys, on Chicago’s South Side, Sister Helen Jeanne Hurley, a Carmelite nun pushing 80 (though she won’t say from which side), teaches math with the help of a nerf ball net above the blackboard.  Boys who do well on quizzes can go to the line for extra points, including a five-point hook shot from the back wall.  Objects flying through the air snap boys out of what the school euphemistically calls “a rest state.”   (Sister Helen, from the outside, over the light fixtures, YES!)   Mobility, even just swapping seats in mid-class, works, too.

Playing down competition in the name of self-esteem is standard elsewhere, thanks to well-meaning parents and a feminized educational system.  But at Mt. Carmel, competition is a basic teaching tool.  Jeff Enright, a former trial lawyer, has his honors history students choose up sides for a mock trial as they would on the playground.  Captains go to opposite corners to call out their choices, and new players bump fists as they line up beside their teammates.   “Now it gets embarrassing,” Enright says, when it’s down to just four or five kids still seated.  He singles out one kid who flubbed his part in the last mock trial: “Fallon, my advice to you is, learn the objections this time.”    Handing out gold stars for “great effort” or “terrific team play” is not Mt. Carmel’s style.   For most boys, it adds up to self-esteem only if somebody wins, meaning somebody else doesn’t.

“There have to be a lot of mountains to climb, and boys want to get to the top,” says Kathy Stevens, MPA, executive director at the Gurian Institute.  She works with schools to promote different ways of teaching boys and girls.  Boys, she says, “may help other boys get to the top, but they want you to know that they got there first.”  Because schools typically think this will be intimidating for girls, they take the opposite approach, expecting boys to learn like girls, sitting still in class and being nice to one another.  “Too often the women’s movement wants the boys to shut up,” says Stevens.  It fails boys—contributing to the high male dropout rate and low college attendance–and it fails society too:  “Each sex brings different skills to the table,” but only if each gets the necessary education.


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