Why modern education is failing boys (like me)

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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David Brooks’ latest New York Times column on why education is failing boys really hits home.

As a thought exercise, he imagines what it might have been like for Shakespeare’s Henry V to attend a modern school:

By about the third week of nursery school, Henry’s teacher would be sending notes home saying that Henry “had another hard day today.” He was disruptive during circle time. By midyear, there’d be sly little hints dropped that maybe Henry’s parents should think about medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Many of the other boys are on it, and they find school much easier.

And it would get worse:

If the official high school culture was über-nurturing, he’d be über-crude. If it valued cooperation and sensitivity, he’d devote his mental energies to violent video games and aggressive music. If college wanted him to be focused and tightly ambitious, he’d exile himself into a lewd and unsupervised laddie subculture. He’d have vague high ambitions but no realistic way to realize them. Day to day, he’d look completely adrift.

This rings true. Personally, it was hard not to hate the dystopian wasteland we call school.

A typical day required waking at the crack of dawn, being herded onto a cold school bus, only to be shipped to what felt like a prison (yes, I went to a public school). Once there, we were given lots of “rules” — and much of what we were forced to learn could only be described as politically correct propaganda.

As a contrarian and a rugged individualist, I naturally rebelled against this conformity (albeit it in a sort of passive-aggressive way.) It wasn’t fun or creative or innovative or entrepreneurial or even useful — all the reasons learning is so fulfilling today. As an introvert, it was next to impossible to fit in at schools that tended to reward “teamwork” and forced collaboration (see my podcast with Susan Cain for why this doesn’t work.) Peace and quiet — I’m part of the “Leave Me Alone” coalition (as I write this, my office door is shut) — are essential to get work done. Yet at school, they never left me alone.

As Brooks notes:

The basic problem is that schools praise diversity but have become culturally homogeneous. The education world has become a distinct subculture, with a distinct ethos and attracting a distinct sort of employee. Students who don’t fit the ethos get left out.

There’s also this: Unless you go to prison or join the military (and while I don’t equate the two, neither are for me), school presents a world you’d never encounter in the adult, outside world. For example, no one knows who is the fastest runner — or the strongest person — at The Daily Caller. Nor does anyone care. At school, you always knew who was the fastest kid (an entire “Seinfeld” episode revolves around this.) This brings us closer to the rule of the jungle (or at least the prison yard) than an academic setting might.

Never once have I been asked to strip down at The Daily Caller locker room (okay, just that once) — and Tucker has never donned a windbreaker and a whistle and yelled at me while I climb a rope (again, except for that one time.) Yet something pretty similar happened pretty much every day in school.

The irony is that I love learning. In fact, learning is sort of what I do for a living. Thankfully, Maryland’s public school system wasn’t impossible to overcome, but it’s hard not to wonder how many other kids like me just gave up.

And as someone who is now a father, my goal is to find a way to make sure my kids manage to learn more than me — without having to endure the soul-crushing environment that is the public school system.

This system once made sense — but it’s no longer 1950. In this urban, highly educated society, the old model is no longer cutting it.

Maybe the answer is the internet?

Matt K. Lewis