Kenneth Roy asks (24 January
): 'What has happened to them [the young men of Scotland]? How can they be inspired to think, write, and express themselves, as previous generations of young Scottish men did?'
Is this true? Did previous generations of young Scottish men think, write, and express themselves? Some young men did and many still do. I don't have any figures to hand, but I suspect that proportionally just as many young Scottish men think, write, and express themselves today as when I was a young man 40 years ago; possibly more, given the ubiquity of text-based social media, through which young men can and do create virtual Twitterstorms of thinking, writing, and self-expression. They might not be thinking, writing, and expressing themselves in ways of which we approve, but neither did James Joyce when he was a young man.
When I was a young man, I thought, wrote, and expressed myself in the approved manners of the day. I wrote poetry, read canonical texts, pondered philosophy. But I did so in secret. My father (who, like most of his contemporaries, had never read a book in his life) disapproved of such a waste of potentially productive time; my grandfather (who, like most of his cronies, couldn't read without moving his lips) found my behaviour completely incomprehensible, suspect, and slightly frightening in a superstitious kind of way.
My teachers dutifully prepared me for my station in life by steering me in the direction of vocational subjects and a factory apprenticeship, which was offered as the proper height of my aspiration; teachers who went memorably ballistic when I turned down an apprentice fitter's job they found me on the eve of my 16th birthday. Thankfully, I had a sympathetic and supportive history teacher who advised me, in the beautiful enunciation of his inner Hebridean accent, to 'tell the bastards to just fuck off.'
But, most of all, I became a kind of Dostoyevskian 'underground man' because I didn't want to be thought unmanly by my peers. Only swots and poofs read books and expressed themselves through literature, art, music, and drama. 'Real' men became mechanics and sorted motors; they didn't do hairdressing and arty-farty stuff. Nor did they sit on their arses all day, pushing pens or reading stuff.
Luckily, my father died in harness at the age of 46, having dutifully overworked himself to an early grave to provide for his family (a man's first priority, he told me), while consoling himself with poor food, nicotine, and alcohol, which freed me to go to university. Only 6% of young Scottish men went to university in those days; I strongly suspect that those were the 6% of that generation who thought, wrote, and expressed themselves in the approved manner.
I don't think my experience as a young man in my milieu was exceptional. We have come a long way in the past 40 years. Many more young men (around 25% of the population now) go to university; many more do hairdressing and arty-farty 'girls' stuff; many more express themselves in the clothes they wear, the sentiments and opinions they tweet, the variety of identities they assume and causes they support.
They might not think, write, and express themselves in forms we oldies would recognise as legitimate and therefore approve. But they do think and write and express themselves (ad nauseum
, in some cases) according to the accepted mores of their generation. And I suspect that, as a generation, they do so more than we ever could.
I read Kenneth Roy's piece on the underachievement of Scottish young men with interest. It's something that has concerned me for a long time. Clearly there are many factors involved in the lack of achievement of many young Scottish men, but I would like to focus on the field of education. Nearly 20 years ago my son came home from the local academy with an invitation for parents to a meeting on 'the problem of boys' achievement.'
My son wanted to know what this 'problem' was – many of his friends had taken umbrage at the idea that they presented a problem and had thrown the letter away and presumably their parents remained ignorant of their sons' difficulties. I did go along and challenged much of the prevailing (teachers') view that boys were a problem to teach. Clearly not much has changed in 20 years, so I'll make the same point: The problem of boys' education lies not with the boys but with the educators.
In the first place, younger years education is nowadays dominated by women, and boys struggle to find role models of male teachers – this was not always the case: like Kenneth, I remember a time when the role was much more gender mixed.
Because teaching methods are dominated by women, they (probably unconsciously) used methods preferred by many girl students, involving neatness, organisation and discipline. Methods of 'active' learning preferred by many boys can be undervalued as disorganised and slapdash.
More recently, as a lecturer of youngish students (17-24) I used to find that girls' academic work tended to hover around the middle ranges – good, not dreadfully bad, but rarely very good either. Young men produced work that had much more of a range – some was awful, but some was very talented. The males sat at both ends of the standard distribution curve.
I was sure then, as I am now, that if educators recognised that the sexes might exhibit some differences in the way they learn, and slanted their teaching to reflect this, as well as attracting more young men into younger years teaching, this would gradually make a difference in boys' educational achievement. It would also be necessary to ensure that there were sufficient jobs that young males would enjoy doing, after school or university.
Even more years ago I worked as a civil servant and one of my young male colleagues announced one day he was giving up his safe clerical job to go down the coal mines. His explanation was: 'Pushing paper around is no job for a man.' I could have added it was not really a job for a bright woman, either, but there's no doubt that the destruction of manufacturing industry has left a big gap in the employment field for those who have creative and social intelligence, rather than the academic sort.
I realise all this requires a belief that there are gender differences: I'm essentially a feminist, and am not fanatical about the issue – I don't have any strong views about single-sex teaching, for example. Men and women probably have more behavioural similarities than differences, but failure to recognise by educators that there are differences does no favours to young people of either sex.
Dr Mary Brown