Let me tell you a little about “Caleb” (not his real name). Caleb is a very nice young man, and unfailingly courteous. Every single day he comes through the doors of my classroom with all of his equipment, all his music and a smile on his face. He even gets distracted from setting up his own stuff by helping others set up their stuff.
Sounds great, right? Isn’t Caleb the dream child we’ve tried to create in our everybody-play-nice, work-as-a-cooperative-team, bully-proof, not-keeping-score, not-giving-ribbons-on-field-day socially-engineered world?
The problem is that in the four days since I last saw Caleb he hasn’t gotten out his equipment once to practice, he hasn’t cracked his music book open once to try to decipher the odd assortment of lines and circles, and he hasn’t developed any capacity for self-reliant learning. When I talk to his other teachers about him, they tell me the same story: Caleb is a nice kid who’s great in a group but hasn’t turned in homework in three years.
What happens next week when Caleb has to sit still for the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program (TCAP) for 90 minutes every day for two weeks? How are we supposed to take this creation of ours and suddenly turn him into an independent achiever for two weeks when for the other 35 weeks of the school year we want him to be Stepford child?
I honestly don’t know if Caleb would be any better a student if his setting were more competitive, if it asked more from him than just being a nice kid. But I’m worried that the sanitized environment we’ve created for boys like Caleb is crushing them. David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, wrote an essay about this phenomenon recently, using the Shakespearian characters of Henry V and Hamlet to draw out his point. Henry was a wild and rowdy youth who grew into a great military leader. On the other hand, our Hamlet-like boys, according to Brooks, only comprise about 40 percent of college enrollees; a typical 11th-grade boy writes at the same level as an eighth-grade girl; and the old advantages boys had in math and science have all but disappeared. He concludes that schools need more (wait for it) diversity: Schools need to allow for both cooperation and competition, both calm and rambunctiousness, both learning to share and learning to win and lose.
Both Hamlet and Prince Henry.
As a 21-year teacher, I still believe in the mission of public schools. But now that there are so many educational choices, families of bold, outgoing, bounce-off-the-wall boys (and girls) have enough viable alternatives that they have almost no reason to stay in the system.
This is a problem that no politician can solve — this is a problem that only the schools can solve for themselves. Unfortunately for all of us, as good at schools have become at correcting instruction, the soft culture underneath that instruction — a product of liberal arts higher education, a collectivist mentality, and the general infantilization of the next generation — has, if anything, solidified. And that will someday be tragic for students like Caleb, because the “real world” won’t care how nice he is if he doesn’t get his work done.
Michael Alcorn is a music teacher and fitness instructor who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. He graduated from Alameda High School and the University of Colorado-Boulder.