Let boys be boys

The war against competition is hurting young males

Issue: "Heresy trials," Aug. 18, 2001

Mentone, Ala.-"War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Say it again." That was a hit song of the '60s, and our leaders in media and academia have said it again and again since then, but in a broadened sense; Competition! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

In journalism, newspaper publishers establish joint operating agreements and competition dies. In education, teachers unions fight vouchers, and competitive schools never get a chance to live. In charity, the established government grantees lobby to keep smaller religious groups out in the cold.

But it's among schoolkids that anti-competition bias has the most obvious results. At many schools the classic competitions are dead. Dodge ball is out. Despite the high profile of the National Spelling Bee, classroom spelling bees are much less frequent. At some elementary-school basketball games no one keeps score.

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Life is different, though, at Alpine Camp for Boys, one of the many camps on Lookout Mountain, the 110-mile-long ridge that runs through Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. At the northern edge of the mountain Union soldiers, besieged in Chattanooga, won the Battle Above the Clouds in 1863 by climbing up and displacing Confederates who had the upper hand. But on the southern part here in Alabama, boys spend the summer doing what few can do during the school year: running and jumping through the day, but above all competing for everything.

They compete here in regular sports and made-up ones, like "noodlers and creamers," where one team tries to whack opponents with those aptly named floaty devices and the other team tries to anoint the first group with shaving cream. The desire to compete largely comes from within. Boys line up to say the Pledge of Allegiance by age and height but they still race to get there first. And at a time when schools are eliminating dodge ball from gym classes because it is "too competitive," Alpine not only has dodge ball but calls it "slaughter ball."

At Alpine, competition leads to not a dog-eat-dog mentality but a sled-dog willingness: The emphasis is on teamwork, and everyone pulls. Boys are divided into two tribes, Cherokee and Mohawk, and points awarded in each competition accumulate in an overall tribe score that is announced weekly to raucous cheers. What New Age facilitators don't realize is that friendship grows fastest when boys are working side by side with the common goal of winning, not sitting in a circle sharing their feelings.

Competition also builds leadership. In traditional favorites like Capture the Flag, 15-boy teams have to develop their own tactics and organization as they try to grab the prize when opponents are inattentive, then make it back to their side of a football field-sized area. In one match I saw, some boys organized sorties and jailbreaks, and one boy tried to cheat, at which point a counselor stepped in to teach that winning isn't everything. Counselors also are careful to show the non-winners that losing a contest does not mean forfeiting love.

Christina Hoff Summers' recent book, The War against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men (Simon & Schuster, 2000), shows that studies saying girls are at greatest risk in schools these days have it backwards. More boys than girls are suspended from school or held back. More drop out. Girls get better grades on average and outnumber boys in just about every extracurricular activity. They're even catching up fast in sports as girls' teams are emphasized while some boys' teams are eliminated.

These K-12 differentials have consequences for higher education as well. Now, about 25 percent more females than males take Advanced Placement exams. The U.S. Department of Education predicts that by 2007 over 9 million women will be in college and fewer than 7 million men. That's important not just for knowledge but for dollars: The average college graduate will earn 50 percent more than the average high-school graduate, and guys who haven't been grade-winners will find it hard to be primary breadwinners.

Some ways to excite boys about school are obvious. Emphasize competition. Engage bodies as well as minds. Mark Twain taught his sons the kings of England over centuries by making a sidewalk with a name on each square. I taught one of my sons the multiplication table by jumping up and down stairs with him as we did 7 times 7 and the like. But what's mainly needed is an attitude adjustment among educators. They need to understand that since boys have enormous energy, teachers should channel the current, not fight it.

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