Politics & Policy

Boy Trouble

Dr. Leonard Sax on Boys Adrift.

Dr. Leonard Sax is author of the alarming new book, Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated and Underachieving Young Men. He recently addressed the problem with National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: This summer, Time magazine ran a cover story entitled “The Myth About Boys.” According to that story, boys today are doing just great, “better than ever,” and anybody who says otherwise just doesn’t know the facts. Did they just get it all wrong, or what’s the story?

Dr. Leonard Sax: They got it wrong. It’s weird how completely they got it wrong, and how little substance there was in that story. More than half the space in the article is devoted to a few rich white boys having fun at an expensive summer camp in North Carolina, $4,000 for three weeks. There are big photographs of these boys jumping into the water, boys playing with mud etc. One of them was on the cover. And this proves — what? According to the author, David von Drehle, the fact that these privileged boys have a great time at their expensive summer camp proves that boys are doing just fine. It’s a colossal non sequitur. In fact it’s astonishing how little evidence Von Drehle presents in support of his position. For example, he puts enormous weight on the fact that more young men are going to college today than was the case 20 years ago. There has been a slight increase in the number of young men attending college — about a 15% increase, compared with a 90-percent increase for women over the same time period. But how many of those men go on to graduate? According to the United States Department of Education, out of 100 men who matriculate at a 4-year college or university, only 29 will earn a degree four years later. The Time cover story never mentioned that — or any of a dozen of other readily available facts which contradict their position. I’ve posted a rebuttal at www.boysadrift.com.

Lopez: So if the article is so wrong, why do you think Time published it?

Sax: I have some friends who think that Time has fallen prey to some left-wing feminist conspiracy. The true explanation, I think, is much less exciting. Last year, Newsweek ran a cover story entitled “The Boy Crisis.” Newsweek said that boys in this country are in trouble, and we need to do something about it. There’s a stale old rivalry between Time and Newsweek. The editors at Time magazine would rather eat sand and die, I think, before they would run a cover story in 2007 basically echoing what Newsweek said in 2006. They had to say something different regardless of the facts. The conclusion of the article was written, I suspect, before anyone did any research. It’s painful to see how Von Drehle twists some facts and ignores many, many others in order to reach his pre-ordained conclusion.

Lopez: The Matthew McConaughey character in the movie Failure to Launch is funny and smart and good-looking — but completely unmotivated. He doesn’t want to get married, either. Is he the exception or the rule?

Sax: He used to be the exception. Thirty years ago, it would have been very unusual to find an intelligent, capable man in his late 20s or early 30s, from an affluent family, who was still living with his parents, who had no interest in launching his own career, in starting his own family, in really having his own life. It’s becoming more common. It’s not the rule — not yet.

Lopez: So how does a boy catch this “weird new virus of apathy?”

Sax: Good question. I have families in my practice where one brother is motivated, intense, hard-working — while his brother is a goofball whose main concern is reaching the Kilimanjaro round in Halo. Same parents, same family, same opportunities. Some boys are clearly more predisposed to this syndrome than other boys. What’s troubling is how much more common the syndrome is today than it was 30 years ago.

Lopez: Are we doing something to boys in the classroom that is causing a lack of motivation? I thought it was the poor girls who were never called on in class. Do boys need no girls in class?

Sax: Coeducation isn’t the problem — although single-sex education may, curiously and rather paradoxically, be part of the solution. One part of the problem is the way that American education has changed over the past 30 years. In the book I provide a lot of detail about what changed in American education between 1977 and 2007. These changes were put in place by good people with good intentions. But the consequences have really disadvantaged boys.

Lopez: Give an example.

Sax: One change is the acceleration of the early elementary curriculum, beginning with kindergarten. Thirty years ago, kindergarten used to be about playing duck-duck-goose, or singing in rounds, or going on a field trip to splash in a pond and chase after tadpoles. Not any more. Today kindergarten is primarily about literacy and numeracy. It’s about learning to read and write.

Lopez: Um…why is that a problem?

Sax: It’s a problem because the different regions of the brain develop in a different sequence in girls compared with boys. Boys develop earlier in some areas, girls develop earlier in others. That fact wasn’t known ten years ago. It wasn’t widely known even five years ago. This is very recent work, some of the most important studies published just in the past year in some cases, which I cite in the book, showing that for many boys, the language areas of a five-year-old boy look like the same areas in a 3½ -year-old girl. It’s just not developmentally appropriate. As a result, boys’ first experience of school now is negative. Many boys develop hostile attitudes toward school very early, and those negative attitudes are difficult to change later. That’s just one of a number of changes in education which I describe, which have had the unintended consequence of disadvantaging many boys.

Lopez: Are women to blame for the plight of boys? Is feminism?

Sax: I don’t think so. None of the factors I describe in the book — changes in education, endocrine disruptors, video games, etc. — are related to feminism.

Lopez: There are actually some physical differences between boys today and boys 40 or 50 years ago?

Sax: That’s right. The average young men today has a sperm count just about half what his grandfather had. His testosterone level is lower as well. That’s a major focus of the book: how endocrine disruptors in the environment have had the effect of emasculating many boys and young men. This wasn’t a feminist conspiracy. Nobody intended this to happen.

Lopez: You suggest using glass rather than plastic bottles. Doesn’t everyone use Mickey Mouse plastic? Our problems sound like they run pretty deep, and from the very beginning?

Sax: To be honest, the first time somebody suggested to me that drinking bottled water out of plastic bottles might be part of the reason that boys are disengaging from the real world, I thought that person sounded pretty gullible. I figured the next idea they’d try to push was the notion that little green men from Mars are controlling our thoughts.

But as I researched this idea, and as I read the scholarly papers, I came to see that there’s really a huge and rapidly-growing body of evidence now linking these endocrine disruptors, these environmental estrogens, to many of the phenomena I describe in the book: boys being less motivated, young men having more problems with erectile dysfunction, boys breaking their bones more easily than boys did a generation ago, and so forth. When I earned my medical degree, 21 years ago from the University of Pennsylvania, it was extremely unusual to find a young man with erectile dysfunction. Today it’s very common. I prescribe more Viagra for men under 30 than I do for men over 40.

Lopez: How much do you blame video games for sending boys adrift?

Sax: It’s a factor. These new video games are so exciting, so realistic, so engaging, that many boys get addicted to them. They play them 10, 15, 20 hours a week. I very often hear of parties where the girls stand around talking with other girls, while the young men are in the next room playing Halo on the 55-inch flat screen or watching their buddies play. We’re seeing more and more young men who would rather play these video games rather than try to meet girls.

Lopez: Have you read The Dangerous Book for Boys? Do you recommend that book? Do you like it?

Sax: I very much wanted to like it. I think it’s a great idea: put together all these boy-friendly activities, like how to make invisible ink out of urine. But honestly I found the book a bit dull, and very British. American boys aren’t particularly interested in the stories of British explorers from a century ago getting stranded in snow and ice. Nor are most American boys particularly interested in how to make book covers which look like Victorian books from 150 years ago. I understand that the book was originally published for a British audience, and they made a few changes for the North American edition.

Lopez: They needed to make more changes?

Sax: Right.

Lopez: What do you have against John Wayne?

Sax: I don’t have anything against John Wayne per se. My problem is with Harvey Mansfield. He’s a professor at Harvard who wrote a book entitled Manliness in which he asserted that “John Wayne is still every American’s idea of manliness.” I have a problem with that statement, and with much of what Professor Mansfield had to say. First of all, he’s mistaken. John Wayne is not every American’s idea of manliness. In fact, most of the teenagers in my practice have never heard of John Wayne. John Wayne is as remote a figure to teenagers growing up today as Rudy Valentino or Errol Flynn was to my generation. Kids today have generally no idea who John Wayne was and they don’t care.

More importantly, John Wayne was an actor. In his real life, his personal life, the actor who called himself John Wayne was not particularly masculine. He made all sorts of excuses for not serving in World War II, for example, even while better actors, such as Jimmy Stewart, were putting their careers on hold to go and serve, putting themselves in harm’s way while “John Wayne” stayed home, put on his makeup and played the role of a soldier in his movies. The actor who called himself John Wayne was never a soldier, or a cowboy, in real life. He just played those characters on TV. I was bothered that Professor Mansfield chose John Wayne as the epitome of manliness, rather than choosing real Americans who actually did something honorable in their real lives: men like Joshua Chamberlain, a professor of religion and rhetoric who led the 20th Maine at the battle of Gettysburg. I talk a lot about Colonel Chamberlain in the closing chapter of the book. American history is full of stories of courageous men who did brave things. I was bothered that this tenured professor at Harvard thinks that an actor who is pretending to be a real man exemplifies manliness better than men who actually did something worthwhile with their lives. And Professor Mansfield is just so wildly out of touch with young people today. I mean, he doesn’t even realize that teenagers today aren’t watching True Grit and The Sons of Katie Elder.

Lopez: I do love Harvey Mansfield and Manliness (well, and manliness) and leave this to the two of you to duel about.

What’s your advice to readers who may right now have adult sons, brothers, husbands, male friends, who are completely unmotivated?

Sax: At the risk of sounding shamelessly commercial, I would say: read my book Boys Adrift. Depending on the boy or man in question, you might get them to read it as well. There’s 250 pages worth of examples and ideas and suggestions which are hard to cram into an interview.

Lopez: Do young women have any hope of finding a man on solid ground? Or we see marriage rates continue to fall?

Sax: Here are the latest statistics. Among people under 35 years of age, 32 percent of women have earned a four-year college or university degree, compared with just 23 percent of men in this country. That’s almost a 3-to-2 ratio, and it’s rising. Don’t get me wrong. The problem is not that more women are earning college degrees. The problem is that their brothers can’t seem to keep up with them.

So maybe you’re a single woman who’s earned a four-year college degree. There are not enough men with college degrees to go around. It’s like a game of musical chairs, with three women and only two chairs. Two men. Even assuming that every available man gets married — and that’s not a very realistic assumption — you still have one woman in three who is not going to be able to find a man with a college degree to marry. That’s the arithmetic.

Here’s a basic fact about American society. Most American women aren’t thrilled at the prospect of marrying a man who earns substantially less than they do. If a woman with a four-year college degree has to choose between marrying a man who is less educated than she is or not getting married at all, more and more women will choose not to marry. And that’s exactly what’s happening.

Lopez: Is this an area a presidential candidate should wade into?

Sax: God forbid.


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