Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Singers of tales

Quick quote from last week to get started:

In every culture at every point in time the ability to tell a story has been as valued by men as it has been by women. The talent for describing a process, for teaching somebody else how to do a job, has been as important a quality for a man as it has been for a woman.

And once upon time, and not that long ago a time it was, a cultured young man, that is one fit for the company of other men, needed to know how to write a decent sonnet, dash off a decent letter, tell a decent story, and give a decent speech.

All this is to say that for thousands of years, whatever our innate biological differences, the cultural pressure on boys was for them to be just as gabby as their sisters.

Something changed.

We've been watching a documentary series, In Search of the Trojan War. In the third episode, "The Singer of Tales," Michael Wood, the British historian who wrote the series and acts as narrator and guide, travels to Turkey to watch and listen to a professional bard perform. Wood is trying to show what it might have been like back in Homer's time when the Iliad wasn't a book but a performance, when the bard spoke or sung his masterpiece from memory and people heard their favorite stories instead of reading them.

The Turkish storyteller Wood visits is a man and his entire audience is made up of men.

For thousands and thousands of years storytelling was a male art. For thousands of years after the invention of writing and the spread of literacy, reading and writing were men's skills. (Women's too, to greater or lesser degrees, mostly lesser, depending on which sexist culture they had the bad luck to be born into.) Words were men's tools.

Now, all of a sudden, with boys falling farther and farther behind girls in their reading skills, we've "discovered" that when it comes to reading and writing boys are handicapped by biology. Their poor little brains just aren't wired for it the way their sisters' brains are.

And some defenders of boys are using this to argue that school, with its increased emphases on reading and writing, is "penalizing" boys and that educators need to make changes in order to accomodate boys' different learning styles and capabilities.

Sensible people should ask them how it was that for all those thousands of years boys were able to triumph over their innate biological inferiority to produce not just the likes of the Homeric bards and Shakespeare, but all those beautiful letters home from the Civil War by soldiers who, most of them, hadn't gone to high school or even, plenty of them, gone to school beyond the fifth or sixth grade.

Read a few of those letters and then read a random sampling of college freshman essays and you have to conclude that it's not boys' brains that are the problem, it's the way boys are being taught to use them---or more likely, not taught.

But before going on, I want to look at the assumption that boys are in trouble.

In his New Republic article, Richard Whitmire reports some statistics that show that while 72 per cent of eighth grade girls are reading at or above their grade reading level only 61 per cent of boys are and he uses these numbers as more evidence that boys are in trouble.

(I believe other studies come up with very similar numbers.)

There are several ways to look at that. The way that it is being looked at by the boys are in trouble crowd is that that 11 per cent difference is catastophic. This is a way of saying that that 11 per cent represent all boys, while girls are represented by their 72 per cent.

Seems unfair.

But another way to look at it is that it's just proof that more girls are smarter than boys.

This makes the girls' 11 per cent edge representive of all girls while leaving boys to be represented by their underachieving 39 per cent.

But here's how I look at it.

If you have an incoming high school freshman class of 100 boys and 100 girls, you have 61 boys who are reading at or above their grade level and 72 girls who are and you have 67 kids, boys and girls, who aren't!

67 kids out of 200 who can't read at their grade level? That's a big problem. And for 28 of those kids you can't attribute the trouble to their being boys, because, well, they're girls. Which suggests that reading skills aren't necessarily a matter of gender and that those 39 boys who are having trouble might very well be having trouble for the same reasons the girls are.

Obviously, then, if you set out to solve the problem in a boy-centered way you are going to end up slighting or even ignoring all those girls.

For a long time girls were systematically denied educations. Very few were taught to read and write. But most men during those times were illiterate too. But that didn't leave them thougtless or mute. Words are sounds. Writing is a code that when deciphered is designed to produce a music just as surely as notes on a score sheet are intended to.

Evolutionary biologists, as opposed to evolutionary psychologists, the difference being that one group limits itself to what's in the fossil record and the other gives itself license to speculate wildly based on this week's pet theories, think that the human brain, male and female, evolved into the shape and configurations it has to handle two things, the two things we do very differently from our ape cousins and primate ancestors---walking upright and talking.

Male and female, we are designed to use words.

We are born singers of tales.

A lot of our children are having trouble with their songs and with hearing other people's.

I think this is because they don't hear the words they read and write.

They can put the symbols down on a piece of paper, they can read symbols off a page in a book or a magazine.

But the music is lost to them.

Their own voices are silent to them.

In some cases this is because they don't have the vocabulary. You can't hear the music of the word if you don't know what that word means.

But in many cases, I believe, it's because we don't teach them the music.

We've divorced the symbols from their sounds.

There's plenty of evidence showing that the best readers are the kids who learned to read at home.

And those kids didn't learn how to do it the way it's taught in school.

They learned it from being read to.

They learned it because their parents and grandparents and big brothers and big sisters and baby sitters and other big people in their lives were singers of tales.


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