Saturday, November 3, 2007

Boys Adrift

In the movie Failure to Launch, Matthew McConaughy plays a 35 year-old man named "Trip" who still lives with his parents who are growing increasingly desperate to have him leave the house. Unfortunately, McConaughy is in no hurry to give up this comfortable arrangement, and so the parents hire the services of a professional "interventionist" (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) to woo him out of the nest.

The movie is humorous, but Leonard Sax, a family physician and research psychologist, takes the main theme seriously. He cites a lot of evidence to support the claim that there is a growing and worrisome epidemic of boys and young men who seem listless, alienated from school, and unmotivated toward doing the things that one must do to achieve success in life. It's not that these boys aren't bright, many of them are. It's not that they're unmotivated, many of them are highly driven but not toward the goals that parents and teachers would prefer.

Sax assumes that boys themselves haven't changed much in the last thirty years but that our culture has. He discusses five changes in particular that have had a profound effect on young males and which he believes to be largely responsible for the lassitude many of them exhibit. Not every boy is affected to the same extent by these five factors nor do the five affect every boy, but, Sax argues, enough boys are harmed by at least one of them to have created a serious problem for many parents and teachers, not to mention the boys themselves. He concludes the book with some advice as to what parents might do to help their sons.

The five factors Sax discusses are these:

Changes at school: Many schools, particularly in the early grades K through 2 or 3, are not well-structured for boys. Consequently, boys fall behind early, become disengaged and often never develop an interest in academic success.

Video games: Sax points out that gaming often takes over a boy's life. He can have success, power, and thrills through video games that his normal activities can't come close to providing. As a result he's often not motivated to do much of anything but compete on-line and on-screen and this he often does for hours everyday.

Medications for ADHD: Alderoll and Ritalin are often over-prescribed and are now believed, according to Sax, to be damaging to a boy's brain.

Endocrine disruptors: This one was the most surprising to me. Some of the chemicals which leach out of the clear plastic bottles which are used to contain so much of the liquid we drink mimic estrogen, a female hormone. Some scientists believe that this is at least in part responsible for the decline in male fertility in much of the developed world. It has also, Sax, suggests had a number of other side effects which are harmful to male development.

Revenge of the forsaken gods: Recent generations of boys are unique in our history in that many boys have grown up without positive male models in their lives to pass on to them what it means to be a man. There are few masculine heroes today and many boys grow up surrounded only by their peers. Such boys tend to become either "slacker dudes" or they seek to emulate Akon, 50 Cent and other thugs.

There's much more to each of these factors than what I've sketched above, and the material Sax lays out for the reader in each of the chapters devoted to them is often fascinating.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter is one titled End Result: Failure to Launch. In this section Sax shares e-mails and other correspondence he has received from parents, girlfriends, and wives of boys and young men who exhibit the characteristics he talks about in the book. The e-mails are riveting in their pathos and the sense of wasted lives that they convey.

If you are a young man, the parent of boys, a teacher of boys, or one who cares about our future then this is a must-read. I'm buying a copy of the book for my daughter and daughter-in-law for Christmas. It may be the best present you can give a parent of a boy you care about.

You can order a copy of Boys Adrift for someone you think should read it at Hearts and Minds bookstore.


The Conservative Predicament

Jonah Goldberg pens an insightful essay on the subject of why people who are basically conservative nevertheless often tend to vote liberal. Here's an excerpt:

In 1964, two political psychologists, Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril, famously asserted that Americans were ideologically conservative but operationally liberal. Americans loved Barry Goldwater's rhetoric about yeoman individualism, but not if it meant taking away their Social Security checks or farm subsidies. "As long as Goldwater could talk ideology alone, he was high, wide and handsome," they wrote. "But the moment he discussed issues and programs, he was finished."

Still, Goldwater went to Tennessee to blast the Tennessee Valley Authority, God bless him. That was like going to a brothel to denounce prostitution, or to Iowa to denounce ethanol -- but I repeat myself. He carried only six states in the 1964 presidential election.

Liberals have an inherent advantage. As long as they promise incremental, "pragmatic" expansions of the government, voters generally give them a pass. And every new expansion since FDR and the New Deal has created a constituency for continued government largesse.

If Hillary Clinton promised to socialize medicine -- which, let the record show, she has attempted to do in the past -- she would lose. But her current campaign promise to simply expand coverage sounds reasonable enough -- even though there's no reason to think she'll stop pushing for a national single-payer healthcare system (a.k.a. socialized medicine).

"Liberals sell the welfare state one brick at a time, deflecting inquiries about the size and cost of the palace they're building," writes William Voegeli in an illuminating essay, "The Trouble with Limited Government," in the current issue of the Claremont Review of Books.

Committed conservatives, meanwhile, find themselves at a disadvantage: They advocate smaller government for everybody -- when Americans generally (including most Republicans) want smaller government for everybody but themselves.

Unless and until we start voting for what's in the best interest of the country as a whole and not for what's in our own best interest, special interest politics will continue to pull us further toward state socialism whether the government is run by conservatives or liberals. Indeed, sometimes it seems as if the only difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans want to stroll toward socialism at a more leisurely pace whereas Democrats want to sprint to it.