My English teacher wants me to write about my feelings, my history teacher wants me to give my opinion, and my science teacher wants me to write on my views about the environment! I don’t know what my feelings, opinions and views are, and I can’t write about them. Anyway, they’re none of their bloody business! I hate school! I only wish I could write about the things I’m interested in, like sport and military aircraft.
John Ridd (On Line Opinion, April 20, 2004) is not the first writer to use the above quote, from a teenage boy, to argue that schools have failed boys by asking them to focus on feelings, communication and opinions - all that girly stuff. In doing so, the implication is that communicative, reflective and emotional skills aren’t part of a “real” curriculum, though presumably technical and physical skills are.
Leaving aside the question of whether or not the curriculum has or has not become feminised, we need to resist the argument that boys should be excused from work requiring them to discuss feelings, opinions and ideas (rather than facts) just because some of them dislike it. To do so would be to do the boys themselves a tremendous disservice, shortchanging them in all sorts of ways in their future lives.
First, boys are going to need all those skills as men if they want to form any sort of ongoing, sustaining relationship with a woman. Whether we like it or not, women are much less financially dependent on men than they were 50 years ago. The days when a man could return home from work, grunt a few words to the wife, consume dinner and expect she’d be perfectly happy with this (and would hang around) are long gone. Any man who hopes to have a relationship with a woman beyond one-night stands will need to learn to talk about feelings, opinions and views, and be able to listen to hers. Emotional literacy is no longer an optional extra in our relationships.
Second, the days when kids were happy with a mostly absent father who couldn’t talk about his feelings are also disappearing. If these boys are to grow into men who have an enjoyable experience of fatherhood, then an education focusing on purely technical matters is selling them short. If they opt out of the girly “feelings” stuff now, will they also opt out when their son is distraught at being bullied, or their daughter is struggling to come to terms with the death of a beloved relative?
Third, the nature of paid work has changed, and is changing further. Many of the most interesting, challenging and highly-paid jobs increasingly require empathy, the capacity to understand cultural differences, and the ability not only to express an opinion but convince others of its merit. The pressure on teachers to excuse boys from the type of schoolwork that fosters these skills is not likely to arise at Melbourne Grammar or Balwyn High School. The parents there know that their sons will need these sorts of communicative and emotional skills to thrive as professionals. Rather, the pressure will be felt in schools at the bottom end of the socio-economic spectrum. Giving into this pressure is only likely to further consign the boys in these schools to the small and shrinking pool of dead-end, muscle-bound jobs, and to lessen their chances of obtaining work in the growing service and knowledge sectors, where communication skills are highly valued.
It may well be that many boys are uncomfortable with discussing their feelings, ideas and opinions. But then, when computers were first introduced in schools some years ago, many girls were uncomfortable and unfamiliar with them. They were required to become computer-literate at school, because to do otherwise would have compromised their future options. Schools and teachers would have failed in their duties, had they allowed the girls to opt out.
As with parenting, so with education. We don’t allow our four-year-olds to subsist on a diet of chocolate ice cream and deep-fried chicken. We recognise that what they want and what is good for them are not necessarily one and the same thing. To alter our schools and curricula so that boys avoid all that girly stuff is to seriously shortchange the men they will become.
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