Friday, May 28, 2010

Why Boys Fail -- Richard Whitmire

Last week I stumbled across a newly published book displayed on a book stand next to a terminal in the Bexley library: Why Boys Fail, by education reporter Richard Whitmire. Intrigued, I snatched it up and read it in two days.

The book's main thesis is:

The world is becoming more verbal. Boys are not.

That's a direct quote, stated twice: once several chapters in, as a conclusion driven to by the evidence presented, and again in summarizing paragraphs.

The problem boils down to one of a lack of basic literacy, which is increasingly lacking in boys. This reality is obvious to me as I read drivel posted to various lists to which I subscribe, and even moreso on Facebook, Twitter and telephone text messages. To paraphrase a friend: Anyone whose thoughts are limited to a 140-character event horizon doesn't have much to say.

Recently, a young friend sent me email to which I was obliged to respond, "So what's with the gansta talk?" His reply, with numerous errors edited out here, said: "It's just the way I type things out on the computer. I guess it comes from too much texting back forth to people who talk like that as well."

This is not to say that one needs to deliver essays when a short sentence or two will do. But whatever is written should at least be reasonably correct. Occasional typos and blunders in informal writing happen with everyone, and are forgivable, but when every single sentence is laden with several misspellings, along with punctuation and grammatical errors, it suggests something is fundamentally lacking on the part of the communicator; it also suggests that he may not even care. Unfortunately, the ironic tragedy of ignorance is that ignorant people don't know they are ignorant, so can't detect the problem so as to fix it.

Whitmire presents abundant data to demonstrate that in the world of formal education (meaning in schools) and in those arenas of life that follow and surround the receiving of such education, there is a rapidly increasing gender gap.

Today 60% of college students are women. With the layoffs that came as a result of the economic collapse of 2008 and 2009, the workforce in the United States is now over half female. Whitmire doesn't make the point directly, but it seems the days when Dad went to work and Mom stayed home with the kids are behind us.

In Montreal 71% of medical students, 63% of law students, 80% of optometry students, 64% of dentistry students, 56% of management students, and 70% of architecture students are women. The situation is similar elsewhere, indicating a shift to a female based economy in professions and services. While this is in some ways wonderful for women, it suggests that something has been happening for a long time with boys coming up through school age. The numbers are indisputable.

Whitmire presents and debunks the commonest knee-jerk explanations, among them:
  • It's those @#$! video games! World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto are keeping boys away from more productive activity.
  • Girls mature faster than boys.
  • It's because of the feminist movement; those women are taking over!
  • Boys will be boys. They love to play, goof off, and delay growing up.
  • If there's really a problem, it's happening only among the poor segments of society or among certain ethnic populations.
All baloney as explanations of the waning literacy of young males.

Furthermore, the problem is happening throughout the world. In Australia, also in one or two other countries, authorities have already recognized the problem and have begun to confront it.

The last part of Why Boys Fail is devoted to a number of proposed reactions, which is what I prefer to call them rather than solutions, because none have been tried sufficiently to know they will work.

It's not my intent here to present the arguments, the evidence, or the proposals. The problem is real. The reasons and solutions are not as obvious. Instead, I'd like to relate my personal experience.

When I was four years old, my mother, the oldest of eight Depression era farm kids, and the only one of her family to be sent to and complete college, obtaining a teaching degree, taught me, the oldest child in the family, how to read from the Dick and Jane series of reading primers. So in those pre-Sesame Street days I became an enthusiastic early reader, already fluently so, and even a hunt-and-peck typist, a fledgling writer, by the time I started kindergarten. My parents also introduced me to the library when I was very young, which I found to be an exciting place. In addition, we were the last family in our area to acquire a television, so that during the summers before we got one, I spent many days reading one book after another.

On page seventeen of the Why Boys Fail I encountered a subheading that caught my eye: "The Wilmette Discovery."

Glenn "Max" McGee was serving as state superintendent of schools of Illinois when he noticed that interest in reading on the part of his own two sons showed a significant decline when they were in fifth and sixth grades, something he found hard to comprehend. Here I quote:
In 2002 McGee became superintendent of the K-8 Wilmette schools along Chicago's high-income North Shore, right on the doorstep of Northwestern University. These schools feed into the famed New Trier High School, which rests high on any top ten list of America's best high schools. McGee sat down to map out a way to accomplish what he describes as making the great schools there even greater. Based on his own family experience, McGee had a hunch: Let's look at boosting boys' performance. To the Wilmette educators, this was a radical approach. Who thought the boys had any problems?
So they got to work. It continues, "In Wilmette, ... one of the wealthiest and most education-focused school districts in the United States, these inquiries are taken very seriously." They issued a 107-page report to demonstrate that McGee's hunch about the boys being in trouble was well founded.
Parents there appeared shocked by the report. Nobody thought this could happen in Wilmette. "We have very high-achieving parents ... who serve as strong role models."

"In Wilmette, nearly everyone eventually goes to college, even the slacker boys."

Quite true. The reason this interests me is that I went through the Wilmette public schools and New Trier High School myself. New Trier was then and still is today a large and high quality public high school. My graduating class was over 960 people. We were told that 96% of us were headed off to college. No other future was ever discussed or even hinted at for anybody while I was growing up. The few who did not go were largely the troublemakers and the kids in the slow track courses, but I didn't know many of them.

Our family was not rich; we were barely middle class economically speaking, as my father worked very hard to be the sole breadwinner in the family, making enough money as a classical musician to support a wife and four sons in such a place. The payoff for us boys was an enriched cultural experience that has influenced my viewpoint on education and life in general to this day.

To me education has always been only tangentially related to the formal part of it -- attending schools, getting degrees and accreditations, pursuing the so-called American dream of having a family and a house in the suburbs with all the accouterments that go with that style of living. Frankly, when I was in school, I gave almost no thought to those matters, so little that it has caused me difficulties at various times that continue to this very day, as there are many practical subjects, even at my age -- past the ordinary age of retirement -- about which my understanding is deficient.

Education to me has always been about growing as a person by drinking in knowledge and experience by whatever means I can get it, and synthesizing that in such a way that my perspective on life deepens. And thus, at least for me, it continues to be, as I attempt by whatever means I can to learn more every single day of my life.

Sadly, it appears that this is not going to happen with many young males today.

Persons interested in knowing more about this topic may be
interested in reading Richard Whitmire's blog.
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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Bone -- Jeff Smith

Exactly one year ago today Suzy and I attended the world premiere of a documentary about comic book artist Jeff Smith, who is from Columbus area, and a graduate of The Ohio Statue University. Smith is famous in the world of comic book art as the creator of Bone, an epic graphic novel. The work has been translated into about fifteen languages, has sold over a million copies, and has been given two or three dozen different awards. I wouldn't have guessed there are that many awards for comic books.

Though I have long loved good cartooning, as one who has had no interest whatever in comic books since my childhood days of Superman, Batman, and the Disney characters—particularly Scrooge McDuck—Smith and his work was utterly unfamiliar to me. When I saw the documentary, for which Jeff Smith was personally present, and the long line of people, including many adults, who were present to meet him and have him autograph their personal copies of Bone, I knew I had to put it on my reading list.

Bone is published in nine volumes, which I obtained recently from the Columbus Metropolitan Library. I spent about a day per volume reading the nine volumes, a total of 1375 pages, adding up the numbered pages, and finished it two or three days ago.

Anyone prejudiced against comic books might think that the term "graphic novel" to be pretentious, but Bone deserves the designation because it tells a continuous and well-crafted story.

The original comics were drawn and published in black and white, and then combined under one cover, which I have seen. Smith thought he was finished, until a friend told him that he really must republish the series with color added.

What I received from the library in three different trips was all nine volumes, but a total of eleven books. One volume they sent me both the color and the black and white versions, and another they sent me two identical color volumes. Two volumes arrived only in black and white. They are all still sitting on my desk behind me, waiting to be returned. Suzy is in the middle of the last volume herself, so I'm waiting for her to finish.

Smith's friend was right: the added color is brilliantly done, so much so that I can't imagine the book without it. Nonetheless, Smith had become a superstar in the world of comics well before the series was completed in black and white.

The story is readable by young readers, but includes much detail it to keep adults entertained. The main characters are the three Bone cousins: Fone Bone, the cheerful nice guy; Phoney Bone, who is driven relentlessly by sheer greed that drives him to perpetrate crazy schemes, but remains strangely likeable nonetheless; and Smiley Bone, about whom Fone Bone says, "He doesn't have a brain," though he proves to have a heart and many likeable qualities. Smiley Bone is definitely the Ringo of the group, as the trio would be incomplete without him.

The three are white like Casper the Ghost. Fone Bone is generally seen without clothing but carries a knapsack; Phoney Bone wears a t-shirt with a star on the chest; and Smiley Bone wears a vest and usually can materialize a cigar, which is never smoked or even commented on.

The other characters include a human girl named Thorn, drawn to appear drop dead gorgeous but not at all sexually provocative, appearing to be between sixteen and years old. Her grandmother Gran'ma Ben, who squints, wears a white apron, and has a mouth that both smiles and scowls simultaneously. Gran'ma Ben is as vigorous as Yiannis Kouros, runs many miles a day, races cows, proves to be a dynamic leader, and an invincible warrior. Thorn does not know it at the start, but Gran'ma Ben was a queen. Thorn's parents, a king and queen, were killed in a war while fleeing from their city of Atheia, which makes Thorn a princess, and one who has special as yet undiscovered powers. At the beginning Gran'ma Ben and Thorn are living together in a tiny cabin in the woods.

There is a supporting cast of hilarious characters: a friendly dragon with floppy ears, a bug of unnamed type named Ted, drawn as a tiny green triangle with four little black legs sticking out of it, packs of rabid monsters called rat creatures who try to kill and eat whatever they can find, two in particular who remind me of Laurel and Hardy, love quiche, and are always bickering with one another, an inn and tavern full of humans men, and gigantic mountain lion named Roque Ja—the "r"should be rolled, but the Bone cousins call him Rock Jaw, evil hooded personages, and a host of others. Numerous new people are introduced in later volumes, some only briefly.

Fone Bone, the main character, the nicest guy, who becomes enamoured of Thorn, carries a backpack, with apparently nothing in it except a copy of his favorite book, Moby Dick, about which he can soliloquize at great length, causing everyone to fall into instant slumber. This becomes one of the running jokes for adults. In one episode Fone Bone and Smiley Bone are a hair's breadth from being devoured by a pack of slavering, screeching rat creatures, when Smiley dives for Fone Bone's back pack and begins reading: Call me Ishmael! whereupon the pack of rat monsters is rendered catatonic, frozen in sleep out of instantaneous boredom.

Later on Smiley finds a cub rat monster and cares for it, and it becomes friendly. He names it Bartleby, another nod to Herman Melville.

The story line eventually gets quite involved in intricate plot details in the manner of much fantasy fiction, a genre of which I am not generally a fan. I could care less about a tale of the struggle between mythical forces of good and evil. But story this is so well told with sufficient humorous twists that I couldn't put it down for the humor, in addition to which it is brilliantly drawn.

Some main characters do die during the course of the story, so it's not all a barrel of laughs.

There is a bit of pseudo Biblical allegory in the plot, though it's obviously not intended to mimic the Bible too closely. There are great dragons (good guys) and Mim, the greatest dragon (very bad), and a Time of the End (or the End Times). Thorn is a vaguely messianic figure, who gradually learns her role in life, is abused and suffers for a while as she attempts to seek the Crown of Horns, which sounds much like a Crown of Thorns, and particularly so given her name is Thorn; thus when she accomplishes it, it becomes a sort of "Crown of Thorn's" as it were. Except the crown is not a crown at all, but a stone wall deep under the earth, and it is not to be worn, but touched. Furthermore, Thorn is trapped in a dead bad monster's jaws with a giant tooth through her thigh and cannot reach it, but she can touch Fone Bone, who can in turn reach the wall, upon which Good Things happen.

But more remains to be wrapped up after that, as there is an apocalyptic ending, where the floppy eared good dragon appears, calls up a horde of thousands of fellow dragons deep out of the earth who rise up, surround the giant bad dragon Mim, and carry it down into a massive pit within the earth that closes behind them, which is the end of this particular war of good versus evil.

Did you get all that? Were you taking notes? I don't think I gave too much away that matters.

The ending, which takes a couple more chapters to spin out, is of course happy, and surprisingly mild, as the three Bone cousins get on a wagon and head back to Boneville, from which they were driven because of one of Phoney Bone's crazy misguided plots a year before, as Phoney is foiled in his attempt to pull yet another dishonest stunt even upon their exit.

Bone is entertaining, well crafted, and very much worth reading by young and old alike; but don't get started unless you're okay with plowing through 1375 pages of comic book.
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Friday, May 21, 2010

House -- Tracy Kidder

Cover of "House"Cover of House
This morning I finished reading "House," by literary non-fiction author Tracy Kidder, still most famous for his Pulitzer Prize winning book "The Soul of a New Machine," written a couple of years before "House".

The book was published in 1985. I bought it around the time it was on the shelves in bookstores as a new publication, except I got it through membership in the Paperback Book Club. It was an impulse purchase, acquired not out of deep interest in the subject matter, but because I admired the earlier book, and I enjoy the literary non-fiction genre. With fiction a reader might get an exciting story and beautiful language, but with literary non-fiction he gets all that, if the author is good, plus he might also learn something practical or interesting.

When "House" arrived, I put it on my shelf, intending to read it, but never cracked the cover until a few days ago. The pages of the book already have a weathered look, and the binding let go of several signatures early on. It was a twenty-five year old virgin book.

"House" is about the building of a new twelve-room house for the Jonathan and Judith Souweine family in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1983. The Souweines were an energetic and intelligent Jewish couple. I say "were" because as I learned from querying the Internet about the book's principals, Jonathan Souweine died on April 9, 2009, at age sixty-one. The couple had been sweethearts since high school. "We've always been married," as Jonathan said during construction of their house. He was a successful lawyer and one time politician who ran for district attorney, but lost, so left politics. Judith is still living (in the same house as far as I know), is a brilliant woman with a PhD in psychology, has done extensive work in education, and has pursued many useful avenues of service to humanity. She is still highly active in many projects.

The story of the building of this house is told much like a novel. The main characters are not, as a reader might presuppose, the Souweines, nor even the architect Bill Rawn, but the construction crew. The tale is told largely from their hands-on perspective, since they were the ones who actually did the work of building it. Their company, Apple Corps was a cooperative consisting of four extremely gifted and dedicated carpenters—Jim Lowe (the boss and greater among equals), himself a literature reading son of a successful lawyer, Richard the workaholic, Ned the master craftsman, and Alex the philosopher who went to Dartmouth and is as equally well-read as Jim. Collectively they embrace far more culture, taste, humor, and even formal education than one might typically expect to find in a construction crew. They are as different from one another as can be, yet get along together splendidly, brothers sharing a common view about the need to do a job the right way, taking time to fix and redo details no one else would ever see, until they met their own exacting standards, usually at their own expense. As a result, their company, Apple Corps, made only $3,000 profit over and above the cost of materials and labor, which they dole out to themselves at the equal rate of $14 per hour—all against the approximately $150,000 total cost of the house, a great deal in 1983 money. The men were disappointed with the bottom line, but absolutely no one disagreed—builders, clients, the architect, the neighbors, and critics who come to look—that above all the house had been magnificently built. The work took five and a half months to accomplish.

An epilogue notes that the company went on to hire two or three younger, talented carpenters, and soon had more work than they could handle from clients who appreciated their work and were willing to pay for it. I don't know how long the company survived, but would be surprised if any form of it is still in operation today.

I have no idea where any of these men are today or what they are doing. I think they were all young enough to still be in the work force today. A quick search indicates that Jim Locke wrote a book in 1988 called "The Apple Corps Guide to the Well-Built House". I don't know anything about the rest.

By 1985, in time to mention it at the end of the book, the house received award from an association of architects in Boston, where William Rawn Associates is headquartered, for being a "house of distinction." Rawn came from a wealthy banking family, eschewed the family fortune, but was a scary good student. He went first to Yale, then Harvard Law, and after practicing law for only two years, became an artist, to his family's dismay, selling his drawings at high class galleries, and earning enough to send himself—without family money—to architecture school at MIT. Although he was already forty years old, the Souweine house was his very first project as a professional architect, designed when William Rawn "Associates" consisted only of himself. Today it is one of the most distinguished of architectural firms. The company's projects have included much in the way of prominent public spaces, especially theaters and university projects, e.g., the Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, an amazing building from what I see of it. There's also an outdoor theater at Lincoln Center built by the company.

There is an excellent and beautiful collection of company's many impressive projects on the company's Web site at I highly recommend a visit.

Regrettably, an hour's searching proved futile in coming up with any image whatsoever of the Souweine house. I can't even ascertain an address in hopes of getting a look using Google Maps Street View. Because the house was featured in Kidder's book, it may have been the Souweines' desire to low profile their exposure, despite being high profile activists themselves, though at the time it was built resources such as the Web did not exist, and few people, even wealthy ones, had computers. I'd love to see pictures of this house.

After the initial design, Bill Rawn, a long time personal friend of he Souweines, became a supporting cast member, dropping in once and a while to see how things are going, and serving as a catalyst to demonstrate how in the world of building construction, there is always at least minor friction between architects and builders.

Builders are like software engineers. Regardless of what clients demand and marketeers promise, what the customers actually get in the end is whatever the engineers give them. They can either like it or sue.

Accordingly, the tension and release of the story flow in "House" has to little to do with the details of house construction, about which a novice can nonetheless learn much, but is about the individual personalities in the drama, and the dynamics between them. Aesthetic principles aside, a lot of money was involved, also a building schedule that started in late April 1983 and lasted until the following mid-October; each person had his own interests and priorities in a project where much was at stake for all concerned. On many occasions there were heated words, particularly between Jim Locke and Jonathan Souweine, but in the end the clients loved their house, and agreed it was superbly designed and built. Despite some differences, everyone parted best of friends in the end.

Tracy Kidder has a wonderful ability to play the role of fly on the wall. The extensive detail he presents as direct quotes implies that he was personally on site for much of the building, and also for business meetings, and in the individual homes of the four contractors. Yet he never once mentions himself or even hints at his presence. The reader is led to conclude that he must have been there, unless he just made stuff up. But the dialog recorded has a strong ring of truth to it. When Kidder reports that Jim's face turns red and he worries he may have overstepped his bounds with a snide comment, but that Jonathan comes back with a retort that indicates he took it well, was that fabricated? It is reported as being the way things really happened, and I am led to believe that it was. A silent observer had to be there to record it.

I could say much more about "House" but won't. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I recommend it.
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