The Moral Life of Boys

The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies are Harming Our Young Men - Christina Hoff Sommers 2015

The Moral Life of Boys

Boys who are morally neglected have unpleasant ways of getting themselves noticed. All children need clear, unequivocal rules. They need structure. They thrive on firm guidance and fair discipline from the adults in their lives. But boys need these things even more than girls do.

The Josephson Institute of Ethics conducts surveys on the moral attitudes of young people. Girls routinely far outperform boys in every measure of honesty and self-control. As part of the 2010 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth, Josephson researchers polled a sample of more than forty thousand high school students. They found that significantly more boys “agree” or “strongly agree” with the following statements:

• “A person has to lie or cheat sometimes in order to succeed” (47.4 percent of males versus 29.8 percent of females).1

• “It’s not cheating if everyone’s doing it” (19.1 percent of males, 9.8 percent of females).2

• “It’s sometimes okay to hit or threaten a person who makes me angry” (36.7 percent of males, 19.1 percent of females).3

The American Psychiatric Association defines a “conduct disorder” as “a repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others, or other major age-appropriate societal norms or rules, are violated.”4 According to the APA, the prevalence of conduct disorder has increased since the 1960s. Far more males than females fit the pattern. “Rates vary depending on the nature of populations sampled and the methods of ascertainment: for males under age 18 years, rates range from 6 percent to 16 percent; for females, rates range from 2 percent to 9 percent.”5 For conduct disorders severe enough to gain the attention of the police, boys also predominate. According to the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Center, 62 percent of children younger than age eighteen arrested for property crimes in 2009 were boys; of those arrested for violent crimes, 82 percent were boys.6

The male’s greater propensity for antisocial behavior is cross-cultural. A 1997 University of Vermont study compared parents’ reports of children’s behavior in twelve countries. The populations studied (which included the United States, Thailand, Greece, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Sweden) differed greatly in how they raised children and defined gender roles. Yet in every case boys were more likely than girls to fight, swear, steal, throw tantrums, and threaten others.7

Every new generation enters society unformed. Princeton University demographer Norman B. Ryder speaks of “a perennial invasion of barbarians who must somehow be civilized . . . for societal survival.”8 Ryder views the problem from the vantage point of society. But when socialization is inadequate, the children also suffer. A society that fails in its mission to humanize and civilize its children fails its male children in uniquely harmful ways.

Janet Daley, the education writer at the Daily Telegraph in London, has written at length about how the lack of directive moral education harms boys more than girls:

There is one indisputable fact with which anyone who is serious about helping young men must come to terms: boys need far more discipline, structure and authority in their lives than do girls. . . . Boys must be actively constrained by a whole phalanx of adults who come into contact with them—parents, teachers, neighbors, policemen, passers-by in the streets—before they can be expected to control their asocial, egoistic impulses.9

What happens when boys never encounter that “phalanx of adults”? We don’t have to look far. In the middle and late decades of the twentieth century, the United States experimented with value-free education. Stanford education scholar William Damon has described the era:

Educators found themselves embedded in a . . . postmodern world. Most responded by concluding that the moral part of their traditional mission had become obsolete. Moral relativism was in, in loco parentis was out. . . . This thinking was a misconception that caused so many readily apparent casualties among the young that it was bound to be abandoned sooner or later.10

Today, most schools have abandoned once popular laissez-faire attitudes toward behavior. As we saw in earlier chapters, many now err in the opposite direction, with draconian zero-tolerance policies for even harmless behavior. But it is instructive to go back a few decades to a time when large numbers of adults defected altogether from the central task of civilizing the children in their care.

When the “Barbarians” Don’t Get Civilized

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, newspapers carried shocking stories about adolescent boys exploiting, assaulting, and terrorizing girls. In the South Bronx, a group of boys known as the “whirlpoolers” surrounded girls in public swimming pools and sexually assaulted them. In Glen Ridge, New Jersey, popular high school athletes raped a mentally disabled girl. In Lakewood, California, a gang of high school boys known as the Spur Posse turned the sexual exploitation of girls into a team sport.11

Women’s groups seized on these incidents as symptomatic of a violent misogyny pervading American culture. The cause? Stereotypical male socialization. Referring to the Glen Ridge case, feminist pioneer Betty Friedan noted somberly that, “machismo is a fertile ground for the seeds of evil.”12 Columnist Judy Mann wrote that the Spur Posse case “contains all the ingredients of patriarchal culture gone haywire.”13 For Susan Faludi, the Spurs were “ground zero of the American masculinity crisis.”14

Author Joan Didion wrote a lengthy piece on the Spur Posse for the New Yorker, and Columbia University journalism professor Bernard Lefkowitz spent six years researching the Glen Ridge case for his 1997 book, Our Guys: The Glen Ridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb. Didion and Lefkowitz offer detailed portraits of the lives of the young male predators. We can see for ourselves some of the forces that turned seemingly normal boys into criminals. Were they desensitized by being separated from their mothers at too early an age, as William Pollack and Carol Gilligan suggest? Are they products of conventional male socialization? Are they the offspring of what Judy Mann calls the “machocracy”?15 The narrative evidence points, albeit unintentionally, to an entirely different cause.

“Our Guys”

The Glen Ridge rape was reported on May 25, 1989. Several popular high school athletes had lured a mentally disabled girl into a basement, removed her clothes, and penetrated her with a broomstick. Lefkowitz was intrigued by the question of how seemingly normal American boys had come to commit such acts: “This wasn’t about just a couple of oddballs with a sadistic streak. . . . Thirteen males were present in the basement where the alleged rape occurred. There also were reports that a number of other boys had tried to entice the young woman into the basement a second time to repeat the experience. . . . I wanted to know more about how this privileged American community raised its children, especially its sons.”16

According to Lefkowitz, these boys were “pure gold, every mother’s dream, every father’s pride. They were not only Glen Ridge’s finest, but in their perfection they belonged to all of us. They were Our Guys.”17 To find out what had gone wrong, he undertook “an examination of the character of their community and of the young people who grew up in it.”18

Lefkowitz shares with Friedan and Mann the view that machismo created much of the evil:

The Jocks didn’t invent the idea of mistreating young women. The ruling clique of teenagers adhered to a code of behavior that mimicked, distorted and exaggerated the values of the adult world around them. . . . But these misguided and ultimately dehumanizing values were not exclusive to this one small town. As the continuing revelations of sexual harassment and abuse in the military, in colleges, in the workplace . . . suggest, these values have deep roots in American life.19

Lefkowitz presents the Glen Ridge story as a modern morality tale about misogyny and the oppression of women. But the facts he powerfully reports sustain a very different interpretation. The real story is about how a group of adults—parents, teachers, coaches, and community leaders—failed massively and tragically to carry out their responsibility to civilize the children in their care. The problem with these young male predators was not conventional male socialization, but its absence.

All through elementary school and junior high, Chris Archer and twins Kevin and Kyle Scherzer, the three boys who would later be convicted of first-degree sexual assault, had bullied other students and mistreated teachers. The “jocks,” as their group was called, routinely disrupted class with outbursts and obscenities. They smashed up the science laboratory, trashed the Glen Ridge Country Club (surely a redoubt of the suburban patriarchy), stole from other students, and vandalized homes. All these actions apparently went unpunished. No charges were filed. No arrests were made. No athletic privileges were rescinded. No apologies were demanded or received. According to Lefkowitz, the jocks had such a bad reputation that twenty families withdrew their children from the school system during their reign.20

The history of abuse of the mentally disabled girl, known as Leslie, went back to Kevin and Kyle’s early childhood. The girl’s mother reports that when the twins were in kindergarten, they tricked her daughter into eating dog feces. Later, they fed her mud, pinched her arm until it was covered with welts, and routinely referred to her in public as “Brain-Les,” “Head-Les,” and “retard.”

Again, it seems the boys were never reprimanded or punished. Leslie’s parents chose not to tell Kevin and Kyle’s parents about the feces, the mud, and the welts. No one seemed to see the behavior in moral terms. Leslie’s parents did consult a child psychologist, who blamed the incidents on the girl’s immaturity—something she would grow out of. The active malice and cruelty of the boys was never regarded as a serious problem to be disciplined and stopped.

From the time they were small children, the boys who would later take part in the rape were opportunistically abusive and cruel to nearly anyone who crossed their paths. This pattern persisted through adolescence. It affected their peers regardless of sex. Later on, it affected their teachers and schoolmates. The glaring absence of any firm discipline, the failure of the adults in their lives to punish them for their egregious actions, turned them into monsters.

By the time the Glen Ridge boys assaulted Leslie in the basement, they had had years of experience with mayhem and abuse without suffering any consequences. Where were their parents? The school officials? The police? According to David Maltman, principal of the Glen Ridge Middle School, “These kids would act up in class, disrupt the learning situation, set other kids up, get in fights with them, go after them back and forth to school. By the fifth grade, they already had had a bad name for a long time.”21 Officials did attempt to intervene. Just before the unruly cohort entered high school, Maltman and the teachers developed a plan to introduce more discipline and order into the school. It had several features that are standard in many schools:

• Students with learning and behavior disorders would be identified and put in special classes, and, where necessary, would be given professional treatment. (Kevin Scherzer, for example, had been classified as “neurologically impaired” in second grade. But his parents always insisted he be mainstreamed and treated as normal.)

• The school would hire a crisis-intervention counselor and institute an alcohol awareness program.

• The school would draw up a new code of discipline, which it would strictly enforce.

Many Glen Ridge parents were incensed by these plans. They argued that hiring crisis-intervention counselors and having alcohol programs would give Glen Ridge a bad reputation. The very idea of having their children “classified” under some category of disorder made these parents angry. When Maltman presented the seemingly mild code of discipline at a parents meeting, “all hell broke loose.” According to the principal, “The parents thought these were Gestapo methods.”22

Lefkowitz, Friedan, and Mann draw the wrong lesson. This is not a story about an American “patriarchal culture gone awry”; it is about what happens to children in a moral wasteland. These boys were raised so permissively, with so little moral guidance, and with adult passivity even in the face of the most loathsome conduct, that they ended up sociopaths. It is a tale of young barbarians who were never civilized—a suburban Lord of the Flies. The difference is that the feral English boys in William Golding’s novel committed their atrocities when they were isolated from adults and civil society, stranded on an island after a shipwreck. What is so chilling about Glen Ridge is all the timid, doting adults who presided for years over their children’s moral disintegration. The lesson of the Lakewood Spur Posse is the same.

“What’s Not to Like About Me?”

The Spur Posse, a high school clique that took its name from the San Antonio Spurs basketball team, consisted of twenty to thirty middle-class boys who competed with one another in “scoring” with girls, especially underage girls. In March 1993, nine members were arrested and charged with a variety of crimes ranging from sexual assault to rape. One of the alleged victims was a ten-year-old girl.

Eventually, most of the charges were dropped, but these swaggering, ignorant, predatory boys from “Rapewood” enjoyed a temporary celebrity. “We didn’t do nothing wrong ’cause it’s not illegal to hookup,” an indignant nineteen-year-old, Billy Shehan, told the New York Times.23 The boys appeared on the Dateline, Maury Povich, Jane Whitney, and Jenny Jones television shows, telling fascinated audiences about their sexual adventures.

Orthodox feminist writers like Betty Friedan, Judy Mann, and Susan Faludi saw in the Spur Posse an embodiment of macho-patriarchal ideals. Less encumbered by a feminist framework, novelist and social critic Joan Didion saw them more conventionally as a group of proto-sociopathic boys. When Didion visited Lakewood in 1993 to do her story for The New Yorker, she noted that contempt for women was not the only thing the members of the Spur Posse had in common. Like the Glen Ridge jocks, these boys had been permitted to terrorize a town with impunity for years. A member of the school board told Didion stories of Spurs approaching nine- and ten-year-old children in playgrounds, stealing their baseball bats, and saying, “If you tell anyone, I’ll beat your head in.” The group had a long history of antisocial behavior, including burglary, credit card fraud, assault, arson, and even an attempted bombing.

Like the jocks, the Spur Posse had little sense of the harm and suffering they were causing and no feelings of remorse or shame. One thing they did have was high self-esteem. Didion writes in her New Yorker piece: “The boys seemed to have heard about self-esteem, most recently at the ’ethics’ assemblies . . . the school had hastily organized after the arrests, but hey, no problem. ’I’m definitely comfortable with myself and my self-esteem,’ one said on Dateline.”24 When another interviewer asked a member of the group if he liked himself, the surprised boy replied, “Yeah, why wouldn’t I? I mean, what is not to like about me?”25

The mayor of Lakewood, Marc Titel, rightly saw in this group of boys a deplorable failure of moral education: “We need to look at what kind of values we are communicating to our kids.”26 Because boys are by nature more physically aggressive, less risk-averse, and more prone to rule breaking, the communication has to be clear and explicit. Boys, as a rule, require a form of character education that places strong behavioral constraints on them—constraints that many progressive educators feel we have no right to impose on any child.

It is absurd to talk of the Glen Ridge and Lakewood outrages in terms of “patriarchal culture gone haywire” or “ground zero of a masculinity crisis.” They are instead evidence of what can happen when adults withhold elementary moral instruction from the young males in their charge, and punishment from acts of youthful terrorism. The more one faults masculinity for such acts, the further one strays from acknowledging the failures of moral education in the last decades of the twentieth century.

A Socratic Dialogue

Unfortunately, even some moral philosophers are reluctant to talk plainly about right and wrong and to pronounce judgment on clear cases of moral callowness and immaturity. In the fall of 1996, I took part in a televised “Socratic dialogue” on moral dilemmas with another ethics professor, a history teacher, and seven high school students. The program, Ethical Choices: Individual Voices, was shown on public television and is still circulated to high schools for use in classroom discussions of right and wrong.27 Its message still troubles me.

In one typical exchange, the moderator, Stanford law professor Kim Taylor-Thompson, posed this dilemma to the students: Your teacher has unexpectedly assigned you a five-page paper. You have only a few days to do it, and you are already overwhelmed with work. Would it be wrong to hand in someone else’s paper?

Two of the girls found the suggestion unthinkable and spoke about responsibility, honor, and principle. “I wouldn’t do it. It is a matter of integrity,” said Elizabeth. “It’s dishonest,” said Erin. But two of the boys saw nothing wrong with cheating. Eleventh grader Joseph flatly said, “If you have the opportunity, you should use it.” Eric concurred. “I would use the paper and offer it to my friends.”

I had taught moral philosophy to college freshmen for more than fifteen years, so I was not surprised to find students on the PBS program defending cheating. There are some in every class who play devil’s advocate with an open admiration for the devil’s position. But at least that evening, in our PBS “Socratic dialogue,” I expected to have a professional ally in fellow panelist William Puka, a philosophy professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Surely he would join me in making the case for honesty.

Instead, the professor told the students that it was the teacher who was immoral for having given the students such a burdensome assignment. He was disappointed in us for not seeing it his way. “What disturbs me,” he said, “is how accepting you all seem to be of this assignment. To me it’s outrageous from the point of view of learning to force you to write a paper in this short a time.”28

For most of the session, the professor focused on the hypocrisy of parents, teachers, and corporations but had little to say about the moral obligations of students. When we discussed the immorality of shoplifting, he implied that stores were in the wrong for their pricing policies and talked about “corporations deciding on a twelve percent profit margin . . . and perhaps sweatshops.”29

The professor was friendly and to all appearances well-meaning. Perhaps his goal was to embolden students to question authority and rules. That, however, is something contemporary adolescents are already good at. Too often, we teach students to question principles before they understand them. And in this case the professor was advising school students to question moral teachings and behavioral guidelines that are crucial to their well-being.

Professor Puka’s “hands-off” style was fashionable in public schools for more than thirty years. It has gone under various names: values clarification, situation ethics, self-esteem education. These value-free approaches to ethics have flourished at a time when many parents fail to give children basic guidance in right and wrong. The decline of directive moral education has been bad for all children, but is has been especially bad for boys.

Value-Free Kids

In 1970, Theodore Sizer, then dean of the Harvard School of Education, coedited with his wife, Nancy, a collection of ethics lectures entitled Moral Education.30 The preface set the tone by condemning the morality of the “Christian gentleman,” “the American prairie,” the McGuffey Readers, and the hypocrisy of teachers who tolerate a grading system that is the “terror of the young.”31 The Sizers were critical of the “crude and philosophically simpleminded sermonizing tradition” of the nineteenth century. They referred to directive ethics education in all its guises as “the old morality.” According to the Sizers, leading contemporary moralists agree that that kind of morality “can and should be scrapped.”32

Some twenty-four hundred years ago, Aristotle articulated what children need: clear guidance on how to be moral human beings. Aristotle compared moral education to physical training. Just as we become strong and skillful by doing things that require strength and skill, so too do we become good by practicing goodness. Ethical education, as he understood it, was training in emotional control and disciplined behavior. First, children must be socialized by inculcating into them habits of decency and using suitable punishments and rewards to discipline them to behave well. Eventually they will understand the reasons for and advantages of being moral human beings. Aristotle’s principles for raising moral children were unquestioned through most of Western history; even today his teachings represent commonsense opinion about child rearing. What Aristotle advocated became the default model for moral education over the centuries. He showed parents and teachers how to civilize the invading hordes of child barbarians. Only in the last decades of the twentieth century did large numbers of parents and educators begin to denigrate his teachings.

The Sizers, for example, favored a “new morality” that gives primacy to students’ autonomy and independence. Teachers should never preach or attempt to inculcate virtue; rather, through their actions, they should demonstrate a “fierce commitment” to social justice. In part, that means democratizing the classroom: “Teacher and children can learn about morality from each other.”33

The Sizers preached a doctrine that was already being practiced in many American schools. Schools were scrapping the “old morality” in favor of alternatives that gave primacy to the children’s moral autonomy. “Values clarification” was popular in the 1970s. Proponents of values clarification consider it inappropriate for a teacher to encourage students, however subtly or indirectly, to adopt the values of the teacher or the community. The cardinal sin is to impose values on the student. Instead, the teacher’s job is to help the students discover “their own values.” In Readings in Values Clarification (1973), two of the leaders of the movement, Sidney Simon and Howard Kirschenbaum, explain what is wrong with traditional ethics education: “We call this approach ’moralizing,’ although it has also been known as inculcation, imposition, indoctrination, and in its most extreme form, ’brainwashing.’ ”34

However, the purpose of moral education is not to preserve our children’s autonomy but to develop a character they will rely on as adults. Children who receive guidance and develop good moral habits find it easier to become autonomous adults. Conversely, children who are left to their own devices will flounder.

Lawrence Kohlberg, a Harvard moral psychologist, developed “cognitive moral development,” another favored approach during the laissez-faire years. Kohlberg shared the Sizers’ low opinion of traditional morality, referring disdainfully to the “old bags of virtues” that earlier educators had sought to inculcate.35 Kohlbergian teachers were more traditional than the proponents of values clarification. They sought to promote a Kantian awareness of duty and responsibility in students. They were also traditional in their opposition to the moral relativism that many progressive educators found congenial. But they shared with other progressives a scorn for any form of top-down inculcation of moral principles. They, too, believed in “student-centered teaching,” where the teacher acts less as a guide than as a “facilitator” of the student’s development.

Kohlberg himself would later change his mind and concede that his rejection of “indoctrinative” moral education had been a mistake.36 But his admirable recantation had little effect. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the traditional directive approach to moral education had fallen into desuetude in most public schools.

Ironically, the next fashion in progressive pedagogy, “student-centered learning,” was soon to leave the Kohlbergians and the values clarifiers far behind. The new buzzword was self-esteem, and by the late 1980s it had become all the rage. Ethics was superseded by attention to the child’s personal sense of well-being; the school’s primary aim was to teach children to prize their rights and self-worth. In the old days, teachers would assign seventh graders to write about “The Person I Admire Most”; now students were assigned to write essays celebrating themselves. In one popular middle school English text, an assignment called “The Nobel Prize for Being You” informs students that they are “wonderful” and “amazing” and instructs them to “create two documents in connection with your Nobel Prize. Let the first document be a nomination letter written by the person who knows you best. Let the second be the script for your acceptance speech, which you will give at the annual award ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden.” For extra credit, students can award themselves a trophy “that is especially designed for you and no one else.”37

Throughout most of human history, children learned about virtue and honor by hearing or reading the inspiring stories of great men and women. During the 1970s and 1980s, the practice was replaced by practices that suggested to students that they were their own best guides in life. This turn to the autonomous subject as the ultimate moral authority is a notable consequence of the triumph of the progressive style over traditional directive methods of education.

It’s hard to see how the Harvard theorists who urged teachers to jettison the “crude and philosophically simpleminded sermonizing tradition” can today defend the crude egoism that has replaced it. Apart from the philosophical niceties, there are concrete behavioral consequences. The moral deregulation that the progressive educators called for took hold in the very decades that saw a rise in conduct disorders among boys in the nation’s schools.38 No doubt much, perhaps most, of this trend can be ascribed to the large social changes that weakened families, such as the disappearance of fathers. But some of the blame can be laid at the doors of the well-intentioned professors who helped to undermine the schools’ traditional mission of morally edifying their pupils.

Few thinkers have written about liberty and individual autonomy with greater passion and good sense than the nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill. But Mill makes it clear he is talking about adults. “We are not speaking of children,” he says in On Liberty. “Nobody denies that people should be so taught and trained in youth as to know and benefit by the ascertained results of human experience.”39

Mill could not foresee the advent of thinkers like the Sizers and the values clarificationists who would glibly recommend “scrapping” the old morality. From the loftiest of progressive motives, many schools were robbed of the ability to enforce society’s codes and rules.

The Courts Enter the Fray

The courts also played a role in eroding teachers’ and school officials’ power to enforce traditional moral standards and discipline. In 1969, in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the US Supreme Court ruled that Iowa school authorities violated students’ rights by denying them permission to wear protest armbands to school. Justice Abe Fortas, in the majority opinion, found the action of the school authorities unconstitutional: “It can hardly be argued that students shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”40 Justice Hugo Black dissented. Though a great champion of the First Amendment, he noted that schoolchildren “need to learn, not teach.” He wrote, presciently: “It is the beginning of a new revolutionary era of permissiveness in this country fostered by the Judiciary. . . . Turned loose with lawsuits for damages and injunctions against their teachers . . . it is nothing but wishful thinking to imagine that young, immature students will not soon believe it is their right to control the schools.”41

Abigail Thernstrom, a political scientist at the Manhattan Institute, cites Tinker as the beginning of the end of effective school discipline. She also sees it as an unfortunate example of Rousseauian romanticism in the courts. According to Thernstrom, “[Fortas’s majority] opinion was a romantic celebration of conflict and permissiveness, even within the schoolhouse walls—as if the future of democratic government and American culture could be placed in jeopardy had the students been told to stage their demonstration elsewhere.”42

In 1975, a second case that would further diminish the authority of school officials to correct student behavior reached the high court. In Goss v. Lopez, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for schools to suspend students without due process. Justice Byron White, who wrote the majority opinion, strongly favored extending students’ rights. Justice Lewis Powell opposed the ruling, fearing it would ultimately be harmful to students.

Justice White prevailed, and the judiciary thus joined the progressive educationists and many parents in holding that “student rights” trump the traditional prerogative of teachers to require compliance with school discipline. The Goss ruling helped bring on the era of permissiveness that Justice Black had warned about.

A Stanford education scholar explains what happened next: “In response to the threat of such lawsuits, schools have felt forced to institute increasingly formal and rigid procedures that cannot be challenged in court because they allow for no discretion or flexibility in the way they are administered.”43 Enter the zero-tolerance policies we discussed in chapter 2. Schools gradually augmented value-free education with judgment-free discipline. But punishment without discretion and judgment angers students and further undermines the moral authority of the school.

Where the Reformers Go Wrong

Those who oppose directive moral education often call it a form of brainwashing or indoctrination. That is sheer confusion. To brainwash children undermines their autonomy and rational self-mastery, and diminishes their freedom. To educate them and to teach them to be competent, self-controlled, and morally responsible in their actions increases their freedom and deepens their humanity. The Greeks and Romans understood this well, as did most of the great scholastic and Enlightenment thinkers. It is a first principle of every great religion and high civilization. To know what is right and act on it is the highest expression of freedom and personal autonomy.

What Victorians had in mind when they extolled the qualities of a “gentleman” are the virtues we need to teach our children: honesty, integrity, courage, decency, politeness. These are as important to the well-being of a young male today as they were in nineteenth-century England. Even today, despite several decades of moral deregulation, most young men (and women) understand the term gentleman and approve of the ideals it connotes.

Far from being oppressive, the manners, instincts, and virtues we recognize in decent human beings—in the case of males, the manners, instincts, and virtues we associate with being a “gentleman”—are liberating. To civilize a boy is to allow him to make the most of himself. And good manners and good morals benefit the community more than even the best of laws. As Edmund Burke advised, “Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there and now and then. Manners are what vex and soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us by a constant, steady uniform insensible operation.”44

Common sense, convention, tradition, and modern social science research converge in support of the Aristotelian tradition of directive character education.45 Children need clear standards, firm expectations, and adults in their lives who are loving and understanding but who insist on responsible behavior. But all of this was out of fashion in education circles for more than thirty years. By the mid-1970s, we were on our way to becoming the first society in history to use high principle to weaken the moral authority of teachers. Soon, local officials throughout the country, from Principal Maltman at Glen Ridge High in New Jersey to Mayor Titel of Lakewood, California, would be powerless in the face of delinquent students and litigious parents.

Value-free education declined slowly, then came to an abrupt end on April 20, 1999, when two boys walked into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and murdered twelve students and a teacher.

Evil Boys

The Columbine massacre shocked the nation. How could it happen? The usual explanations failed. Poverty? The killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were middle class. Easy access to weapons? True, but young men, especially in the West, have always had access to guns. Broken families? Both boys’ families were intact. A nation of emotionally repressed boys? Boys were much the same back in the ’50s and ’60s when nobody brought guns to school. Bullies drove them to it? As journalist Dave Cullen showed in his meticulously researched Columbine, the killers were not bullied; nor were they members of an outcast Goth cult called the Trench Coat Mafia—that was all a media fiction.46

One week after the Colorado shootings, Secretary of Education Richard Riley talked to a group of students at a high school in Annapolis, Maryland. After the secretary rounded up the usual causes and reasons for the atrocity, a student asked him about one he had not mentioned: “Why haven’t students been offered ethics classes?” Secretary Riley seemed taken aback by the question.

Sad to say, it is not likely that an ethics curriculum would have stopped boys like Harris and Klebold from their murderous rampage. Harris was a cold-blooded sociopath; Klebold, an enraged, suicidal follower. They planned their assault for more than a year, and the goal was not to shoot a few students. Their plan (which fortunately failed when their bombs did not detonate) was to rival Timothy McVeigh and to blow up the entire school. They were domestic terrorists.

As noted in chapter 2, many social critics cited the Columbine debacle as a metaphor for all boys. William Pollack, director of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital and author of the bestselling Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, told audiences around the country, “The boys in Littleton are the tip of the iceberg. And the iceberg is all boys”47 (his emphasis). More recently, feminist sociologist Jessie Klein opined:

Eric and Dylan were affirming, rather than rejecting, some of the prevailing social moral standards at their school. These expectations push boys to achieve a certain kind of status at all costs—and in particular link the achievement of this status to a narrow definition of masculinity that values power and dominance above all else.48

There were hundreds of boys at Littleton’s Columbine High. Some behaved heroically. Senior Seth Houy threw his body over a terrified girl to shield her from the bullets. Scores of grief-ridden boys attended the memorial services. At one service, two brothers performed a song they had written for their lost friends. Other young men read poems. To take two morbid killers as representative of “the nature of boyhood” is profoundly misguided and unjust.

Certainly, the school could have done a better job protecting itself. When Harris and Klebold appeared in school with T-shirts with the words “Serial Killer” emblazoned on them, the principal should have taken notice. An English teacher at Columbine, Cheryl Lucas, told Education Week that both boys had written short stories about death and killing “that were horribly, graphically, violent” and that she had notified school officials. According to Lucas, the officials had taken no action because nothing the boys wrote had violated school rules. Speaking with painful irony, the frustrated teacher explained, “In a free society, you can’t take action until they’ve committed some horrific crime because they are guaranteed freedom of speech.”49 Harris and Klebold exposed the madness of deploying that sort of logic with adolescents.

But one of the lessons of the Columbine story is to be careful drawing lessons. In the first edition of this book, I cited the case as an example of a breakdown in character education. But the more we learn about the events at Columbine or Sandy Hook Elementary, why those killers did what they did is as mysterious and complex as the problem of evil itself. We need to do all we can to identify deviants such as Klebold, Harris, and Adam Lanza; and we need to protect ourselves from their malice. But they should not be confused with normal boys. Most boys don’t need therapeutic interventions, gender resocialization, or draconian punishments; what they need are basic ethics.

In sum: Columbine brought an abrupt end to the “value-free” progressive pedagogy of 1970—1999, but it also led to serious errors in the opposite direction: the zero-tolerance movement. Both were errant extremes that proved particularly harmful to boys. At the same time, Columbine produced positive and productive responses. It invigorated a burgeoning character education movement. Such a movement may never protect us from sociopaths like Harris, Klebold, and Lanza, but its prospects for normal, healthy children are bright.

The Quiet Revival of Character Education

In the early 1990s, even before the Columbine shootings, a hitherto silent majority of parents, teachers, and community activists were beginning to agitate in favor of old-fashioned moral education. In July 1992, a group called the Character Counts Coalition (organized by the Josephson Institute of Ethics and made up of teachers, youth leaders, politicians, and ethicists) gathered in Aspen, Colorado, for a three-and-a-half-day conference on character education. The program was initiated by Michael Josephson, a former law professor and entrepreneur. His texts were Aristotle, St. Augustine, and the Boy Scout Handbook—the “old morality.”

At the end of the conference, the group put forward “The Aspen Declaration on Character Education.” Among its principles:

• The present and future well-being of our society requires an involved, caring citizenry with good moral character.

• Effective character education is based on core ethical values that form the foundation of democratic society, in particular, respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, justice, fairness, civic virtue, and citizenship.

• Character education is, first and foremost, an obligation of families: it is also an important obligation of faith communities, schools, youth, and other human service organizations.50

Over the years, the Character Counts Coalition has attracted a wide and politically diverse following. Its council of advisors has included liberals such as Marian Wright Edelman and conservatives such as William Bennett. Several United States senators from both political parties have joined, along with a number of governors, mayors, and state representatives. The new character-education movement has been embraced by dozens of youth-serving organizations, including the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the YMCA of the USA, Boys & Girls Club of America, and the National PTA. Members also include schools, municipalities, and businesses. “Together we reach more than seven million young people every day,” says the Josephson Institute.51 Today most states mandate some form of moral education.

Individual schools have testified to its effectiveness. Fallon Park Elementary School in Roanoke, Virginia, for example, saw a dramatic change in its students after the principal adopted the Character Counts program in 1998.52 Every morning the students recite the Pledge of Allegiance. This is followed by a pledge written by the students and teachers: “Each day in our words and actions we will persevere to exhibit respect, caring, fairness, trustworthiness, responsibility, and citizenship.” These core values were integrated into the daily life of the school. According to the principal, suspensions declined, attendance and grades improved, and—mirabile dictu—misbehavior on school buses all but disappeared.53 That was in 1998; in 2012 the program was still going strong.

Character Counts is the most widely used character education program. So far there is little research proving its efficacy, but dozens of evidence-based programs have flourished over the years, and many received strong federal support for a time. Among the most successful are PATHS (South Deerfield, Massachusetts), Roots of Empathy (Toronto, Canada), Caring School Community (Oakland, California), and Positive Action (Twin Falls, Idaho). Stanford’s William Damon reports, “Federal support for such programs was authorized under the Clinton administration and tripled in size during the Bush administration.”54 According to Damon, the Obama administration has “reduced or eliminated support . . . with the lone exception of a new bullying initiative.”55

Members of the Obama administration may have recoiled from the conservative connotations of “character.” But it is also possible they were reacting to the muddled state of research surrounding such programs. There are hundreds of different programs, and the research on their effectiveness is mixed. In What Works in Character Education, a 2005 survey, University of Missouri—St. Louis education scholar Marvin Berkowitz and his colleague Mindy Bier identified “sixty-nine scientifically rigorous studies showing the effectiveness of a wide range of character education initiatives.”56 Thirty-three programs were cited for having “scientifically demonstrated positive student outcome.” However, these results were contradicted by a major 2010 Department of Education study, which examined seven typical character education programs and found them ineffective.57 Researchers randomly assigned programs to eighty-four schools in six states and then measured their impact on student behavior and achievement. When compared to the results of a control group, they could find no evidence of improvement.

The latter study has proved controversial. According to Berkowitz, the research design was so rigorous that it likely made it difficult to implement the programs effectively. Such comprehensive school initiatives usually require strong commitment from school leaders and staff, and randomly assigning programs to schools and classrooms is therefore an obstacle to effectiveness. William Damon judged it to be “a poor test of how real character education influences students.”58 Allen Ruby, the coauthor of the Department of Education study, conceded that “this is one study, so people shouldn’t just say, ’We’re done, let’s move on.’ ”59 All the same, the findings were sobering and remind us that the task of finding our way back to moral education is not going to be easy. Needless to say, we have to keep trying. Too many children, boys most of all, are morally adrift. And there are some programs that have been judged effective by other researchers. Consider Positive Action.

Aristotle in Idaho

Positive Action is a character education program founded in 1982 by education scholar Carol Gerber Allred. Today more than eleven thousand schools, twenty-five hundred districts, and two thousand community groups have adopted it. The K—12 curriculum consists of teachers’ guides and scripted lessons, along with a variety of age-appropriate games, music, posters, stories, and activities. Lessons are taught fifteen minutes a day throughout the school year. When the Department of Education carried out an evaluation of forty-one leading character education programs in 2007, Positive Action was the only one to receive its seal of approval. Positive Action is the one ethics program included in the department’s influential What Works Clearinghouse (WWC). “The WWC considers the extent of evidence for Positive Action to be moderate to large for behavior and for academic achievement.”60

In the late 1970s, Allred was teaching high school in Idaho and became discouraged by her students’ lack of engagement and ambition. Many were confused about basic ethics and had little understanding of work ethic. “I just knew they could do better,” she told me. In response, Allred developed a character education system based on her readings in psychology, philosophy, and her appreciation of “Idaho farm values.” She asked herself, “What do these hardworking, self-reliant, and honorable farmers know, and how can I teach it to my students?” She came up with a simple formula, which she named Positive Action. According to several carefully designed studies, her formula works.61 These studies found that Positive Action improved behavior, increased academic achievement, reduced suspension rates, and, according to the WWC, reduced “serious violence among boys.”62 A third, more recent study found that Positive Action had “favorable program effects on reading for African American males.”63

The Positive Action curriculum is based on the old-fashioned idea that “you feel good about yourself when you think and do positive actions, and there is a positive way to do everything.” Its philosophy was crisply expressed by Abraham Lincoln: “When I do good I feel good, and when I do bad I feel bad.”64 Children as young as three or four are able to grasp this simple truth. The program teaches them how to stay inside the “Success Circle” (or “Happy Circle” for the younger children). The key is to fix on and hold positive thoughts and then act on them. Good feelings follow.

But Positive Action is not an “I love myself” self-esteem program. Allred became disillusioned with the self-esteem movement when she realized it lacked moral substance. Positive Action directs children toward a set of core values: specifically, trustworthiness, industry, kindness, and achievement. Children learn to pay close attention to how they feel when they are honest, hardworking, and kind; and they learn to avoid the vicious cycle that comes from cultivating bad thoughts, taking destructive actions, and feeling self-loathing. They become their own moral mentors.

One goal of the program is to get kids hooked on self-improvement—physical, moral, and intellectual. They are taught that it can be hard to stay inside the Success Circle but intrinsically very rewarding. It may be tempting to shirk a demanding task, lie to a friend, or steal something from someone. But children learn to monitor the toll it takes on their psyches. They also learn the central lesson that comes down to us from the ancient Stoics: you don’t have to be at the mercy of your thoughts and ideas—you can change them and improve them. As the first-century Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “What upsets people is not things themselves, just their judgment about things.”65 Through Positive Action, children learn to be mindful and careful of their judgments.

Older students also study the lives of great individuals—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Florence Nightingale, Susan B. Anthony, Albert Einstein, the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, or Rosa Parks—with a focus on “the thoughts that lead them to take great actions.” Allred’s program is practical, mundane, and homespun, but it somehow captures the insights of the world’s great moral traditions. What’s more, it resonates with children. “It is intuitive in them,” Allred told me. Aristotle and Epictetus could not agree more. This Idaho educator may have found a way to equip children with a moral compass—and the means to find their way back to true north when they stray.

In June 2011, an eleven-year-old boy at Monterey Heights Elementary School in California gave a speech at graduation about how Positive Action had changed his life. He had once been a bully and a troublemaker and was failing his classes. “The lunch lady tried to keep me from recess so I cursed her out,” he told his audience. “School was a prison to me and teachers were just trying to keep me locked in.” But something in the Positive Action curriculum reached him. He is now a Positive Action “Sumo.” His grades are good, he has more friends, and he has emerged as a school leader. “To all my future lunch ladies—I will not cuss you out.”

When a Michigan state official visited a Positive Action class at Tustin Elementary in Tustin, Michigan, she remarked to a coworker, “I can use this in my own life.”66 We can all use it in our lives, but too many parents and schools simply fail to impart basic worldly wisdom to children. Positive Action appears to be effective with both girls and boys; but today, with so many boys clueless about right and wrong, misdirected by the self-esteem movement, and lacking ambition—it is just the sort of instruction they desperately need.

How to Be Successful

The movement to restore directive moral education to the schools has been fiercely resisted by many educators since its inception. Amherst professor Benjamin DeMott wrote a piece for Harper’s Magazine in 1994 jeering at the revived character education movement. Like Professor Puka, DeMott asked how we can hope to teach ethics in a society where CEOs award themselves large salaries “in the midst of the age of downsizing.”67 Alfie Kohn, a popular education speaker and writer, wrote a long critical piece in the education magazine Phi Delta Kappan accusing character education programs of indoctrinating children and making them obedient workers in an unjust society where “the nation’s wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.”68 Reactionary values, he claims, are already a powerful force in our nation’s schools: “Children in American schools are even expected to begin each day by reciting a loyalty oath to the Fatherland, although we call it by a different name.”69 Kohn’s comparison—likening the Pledge of Allegiance to a loyalty oath to Hitler’s Reich—is a fair example of the mind-set one still finds among some progressives.

Thomas Lasley, former dean of the University of Dayton School of Education and another foe of the “old morality,” denounces the “values juggernaut” for its hypocrisy:

Teachers tell students to cooperate, but then they systematically rank students in terms of their class performance. . . . Teachers tell students that respect is essential for social responsibility, but then they call on boys a majority of the time. . . . And finally students are informed that they should be critical thinkers, but then they are evaluated on whether they think the same way that their teachers do.70

Jerry Harrington (now retired) taught math at the Woodland Park Middle School, located in a poor neighborhood of San Diego, for more than thirty years. During his time at Woodland Park, Harrington taught a fifteen-minute morning class to students called How to Be Successful. It’s a course on what Aristotle called the practical virtues. But it is also the kind of course critics like Kohn and Lasley deplore. In Harrington’s class, the kids learn the “Eleven B’s”: Be responsible. Be on time. Be friendly. Be polite. Be a listener. Be a tough worker. Be a goal setter. And so on. Children are taught all about the work ethic and how to integrate it into their lives.71

Writer Tim Stafford described what happened when Harrington ran into a former pupil.72 The student, Philip, then in high school, was bagging groceries, and Harrington asked him how he got his job. Philip said he got it by applying what he had learned in class. First, he set a goal: “I set a goal that I needed to earn six hundred dollars in the summer because my mother could not afford to buy me clothes for school.” Adhering closely to the method taught in the course, Philip then broke the goal down into small parts. Next he had taken what are called “action steps.” Step one: He listed twenty businesses that were within walking or biking distance of his house. Step two: He went to each one to apply for a job. After sixteen rejections, the seventeenth place—the grocery store—hired him.

Two years later, Mr. Harrington ran into Philip’s older brother, who told him that Philip was still working. The older brother told Mr. Harrington, “You saved my life too.” He explained that their mother was an alcoholic who had had a series of boyfriends. Their home life was chaotic. Philip had told his brother about what he had learned in his How to Be Successful class. Now both brothers were putting their lives together.73

I spoke with Harrington in the fall of 1999. He told me that, on average, middle school boys are less mature than the girls: “The boys have difficulties at the level of basic organization: being responsible for their backpacks, their homework.” Most of the girls understand the idea of personal responsibility and are ready to move on to the idea of being responsible for others. At Harrington’s school, it is girls who are active in school events and who hold the leadership positions in student government. The male students are preoccupied with skateboarding, surfing, and roller blading—activities with few rules, little structure, no responsibilities. When he asks his male students about their long-term goals, many of them confidently assert that they plan to become sports stars. But when he inquires about what steps they are taking to realize even that unrealistic goal, he finds that they have a very poor understanding of the relationship of means to ends. Harrington has two daughters and assures me that “girls are very dear to my heart.” But, he points out, no one seems to be focused on boys: “Every time I turn around, if there is an event or program where someone is going to be lifted up and encouraged, it’s for girls.” Harrington was unusual in recognizing and talking about boys, their insufficiencies, and how badly we neglect them. He was doing what he could to help them, but in too many schools the moral needs of boys are disregarded and unmet.74

There are millions of American boys who could greatly benefit from courses like Harrington’s and from programs like Positive Action—and not just poor and neglected boys. Of course, girls need directive moral education as well. But when we consider that boys are more likely to fail at school, to become disengaged, to get into trouble, and generally to lose their way to a viable future, it is reasonable to conclude that boys need it more. When two University of Pennsylvania researchers tried to determine why girls do so much better in school than boys, one glaring but simple difference stood out: “Self-discipline gives girls the edge.”75

What real-world help do the DeMotts, Kohns, Lasleys, and Pukas have to offer boys such as Philip and his brother? What do they propose the schools do about boys with serious character disorders, such as Kyle and Kevin Scherzer and Chris Archer, the Glen Ridge ringleaders, and the Lakewood boys? How would Philip and his brother have fared under the latter-day romantic permissive philosophy of these progressive educators? At the other extreme, too many schools have adopted zero-tolerance policies and simply suspend or expel troubled boys and leave them to cope on their own. The evidence on current character education is mixed, but the extremes—value-free education, gender resocialization, and zero tolerance—have no empirical basis whatsoever.

Lacking guidance and discipline and ignorant of their moral heritage, many American public school children, especially boys, are ill prepared for real life, confused about how to manage their personal lives, and ethically challenged. Some, indeed, are lethally dangerous. In the war against moral education, it is boys who suffer most of the casualties.