Educating Boys for the Arena


Educating Boys for the Arena

Dec 20, 2023 8 min read

Commentary By

Rachel Alexander Cambre

Visiting Fellow, B. Kenneth Simon Center & Education Policy

Giana DePaul

Fall 2023 Member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation

Fewer American men are entering the arena. Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

At a recent event hosted by the Heritage Foundation, a panel of scholars discussed this crisis of masculinity, tracing its origins to a culture of fatherlessness.

Classical education’s emphasis on the daring and heroic works...that have marked the past appeals to boys’ adventurous and action-oriented sensibilities.

American educators have spent decades working on female achievement in high school and’s time to give that same attention to their male counterparts.

In 1910, the former President Theodore Roosevelt famously praised what he termed the man in the arena, “whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds.”

During the decades that followed Roosevelt’s speech, his portrait was recognizable in the generations of men who fought valiantly in the two World Wars, provided for their families, and raised their children. Yet today, Roosevelt’s portrait sounds more and more like a relic of the past, as rates of men graduating from high school or college, participating in the workforce, and fathering children decline. Fewer American men are entering the arena.

At a recent event hosted by the Heritage Foundation, a panel of scholars discussed this crisis of masculinity, tracing its origins to a culture of fatherlessness that begins in the home but continues to find expression through educational practices disadvantageous to boys.

Nancy Pearcey, author of The Toxic War on Masculinity, first detailed how the Industrial Revolution took work out of the home, moving men to factories and offices for most of the workweek, and leaving boys without day-to-day role models for how to be men, a trend that the breakdown of the family has exacerbated. Schools of education have further left boys behind, Christina Hoff Sommers—an expert on the crisis—added, training mostly female teachers in educational methods that are boy-averse, from behavior-based grading and shortening recess to discouraging single-sex classrooms. Henry Olsen, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, connected these trends to low workforce participation rates, since men without college degrees are far more likely to remain unemployed than men with them. The consequences of the boy crisis are tremendous, affecting not only the labor force but marriage and birth rates, both of which have been dropping precipitously. Recent economic and educational developments offer reason for hope, however, with rises in remote work, school choice policies, and the classical education movement introducing new opportunities to provide the education boys need. As parents reclaim their roles as the primary educators of their children, they have the freedom—and the duty—to bring men back into the arena.

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Though few dispute the devastating effects of the COVID-19 lockdowns, their disruptions to the economy and K-12 schooling prompted the advances of two innovative policies with the potential to benefit boys’ upbringing: remote work and school choice. When employers began accommodating greater levels of remote work, fathers who once spent over 40 hours per week outside of the home were able to spend more time with family, sharing coffee breaks, lunches, and “water cooler chats” with children instead of colleagues. While most have returned to in-person work since the pandemic, hybrid working arrangements remain common, allowing fathers to resume some of the child rearing responsibilities they once traditionally held when, as Pearcey explained in her remarks, fathers for the most part worked from home. “Fathers were just as engaged with their children as mothers were,” she noted, “but of course especially with their sons, teaching them the skills they needed for adult life.”

Some fathers are now educating their sons in these skills through homeschooling, a practice on the rise across the U.S., according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll. Like the boost in remote work, the growth of homeschooling—and homeschooling dads—also has roots in the pandemic. When the lockdowns sent children back home to attend school remotely, many parents were shocked by the subversive content their children were learning, from lessons emphasizing the importance of skin color to claims about “the infinite gender spectrum.” As a result, support for school choice ballooned, with an unprecedented number of states adopting universal education savings accounts (ESAs) that allocate a portion of the school district’s per-pupil spending to accounts that parents can then use for a range of educational expenses, including private school tuition, homeschooling curriculum materials, and personal tutors.

School-choice policies thus permit and invite parents—including fathers—to take charge of the direction of their children’s education, even assuming the role of teacher themselves. Indeed, as ESAs and similar policies have flourished, homeschooling has likewise surged, becoming the fastest growing educational practice in the U.S. over the past few years, according to a Washington Post dataset.

Moreover, fathers are conducting an increasing share of the schooling done at home. While mothers still make up the majority of home educators, the Post’s August 2023 survey of homeschooling parents found that for 40 percent of families, fathers now take on teaching responsibilities, a development made possible both by successes of the school choice movement and by the proliferation of remote work options. Family-friendly policies such as these are helping to bring male teachers back into the classroom, providing more boys with models for masculine virtue.

Involved fathers may not always be able to teach their sons directly. Still, the expansion of school choice permits them to choose alternative curricula that suit their sons better than the mainstream options. For a growing number of families, those alternatives involve a return to time-tested educational methods—embodied by the classical school movement—that are more attuned to human nature. Classical education has matched homeschooling in its rapid growth over the past decade or so, expanding its reach through charter schools, Christian, Catholic, and Jewish academies, and homeschooling co-ops, and research on student outcomes explains why: Classical school students graduate better prepared not only for college and the workforce, but for facing life’s problems.

Though the classical education movement encompasses a range of practices and content, its adherents share a commitment to teaching the pivotal words and deeds that built Western civilization, from Abraham’s faith and Pericles’ funeral oration to the American Founding. This commitment benefits all students, bequeathing to them their intellectual heritage so that they may better understand themselves and the world around them. Yet it has a special potential to captivate boys who may otherwise struggle to pay attention to the “feelings-centered, risk-averse” lessons that Sommers finds so common in today’s schools.

Classical education’s emphasis on the daring and heroic works, sacrifices, discoveries, victories, and tragedies that have marked the past, by contrast, appeals to boys’ adventurous and action-oriented sensibilities. In so doing, classical curricula can help to reverse the decline in reading among boys by introducing them to texts and stories that celebrate manly virtues.

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In addition to its content, the classical education movement’s commitment to the Socratic method also distinguishes it from mainstream alternatives. Modeled after Socrates, the founder of Western philosophy, the Socratic approach to education emphasizes seminar-style dialogue and debate—particularly at the high school level—over the passive reception of lectures and PowerPoint presentations. This method, too, benefits all students, who thus learn how to speak eloquently and argue civilly about weighty matters, but it especially addresses the needs of boys, who thrive in active learning environments that offer an outlet for their characteristic spiritedness. By capitalizing on boys’ natural affinity for competition, the Socratic method better challenges them to excel at school.

Lastly, several classical schools have begun to recognize the importance of integrating the classical liberal arts—grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy—with what are often called the common arts—from gardening and raising farm animals to fixing machinery. Just as classical schools’ commitment to the liberal arts serves to pass down the West’s intellectual heritage to a new generation, their introduction of the common arts similarly aims to pass down “trades and skills that have been lost over time,” as St. John Paul II Independent School in south-central Kansas puts it.

At three new CiRCE Institute classical schools, for example, students supplement core studies in Latin and the great texts of Western civilization with shop class and woodworking, while others emphasize wilderness skills and agriculture. These practical arts have become as neglected in modern mainstream schools as have the liberal arts, to the detriment of all students but especially boys, who tend to possess a natural aptitude for hands-on learning. Classical schools’ willingness to bring the common arts back into the classroom not only makes for a more “boy-friendly” education, but opens up career opportunities in vocations that face an increasing shortage of workers

As the panelists at Heritage’s Crisis of Masculinity event noted in their remarks, American educators have spent decades working on female achievement in high school and beyond, and that focus has paid off: Women now make up 60 percent of college students in the U.S., and continue to outnumber men at the graduate school level. It’s time to give that same care and attention to their male counterparts, whose struggles in school have been overlooked for far too long. Let’s get our men back into the arena.

This piece originally appeared in The American Conservative