Can books be boys' toys?;Opinion;Platform

30th April 1999 at 01:00
In the aftermath of the Littleton massacre, Oliver James looks at the mindset of the young males now to be tempted to read with gory adventure stories

DAVID BLUNKETT has insisted that scary sci-fi and gory action-adventure books must be offered to boys in secondary schools to get them reading. Is there a danger of encouraging stereotypes of masculine aggression, of stirring up the dark ingredients in the testosterone cocktail? At worst, could such books encourage already vulnerable boys to act violently?

At its simplest, the answer would seem to be no. The kind of tame fare being proposed is Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler and The Iliad. Compared with The Terminator, Pulp Fiction and the other films that young boys are very liable to get sight of today, these are unlikely to inflame the potentially violent imagination. But the issue may be more complex than first meets the eye.

The spree killing of 12 pupils and a teacher at a school in Denver, Colorado, last week provides an extreme illustration of the subtlety of the problem of aggression among males in school subcultures. If macho, domineering behaviour among the dominant subculture goes unchecked or is implicitly legitimated by the authorities, it can lead to some very nasty counter-reactions - it is not the conventionally macho types who necessarily pose the greatest threat.

As details emerged of the background to the spree, it became apparent that the killers, Dylan Klebold, 17, and Eric Harris, 18, had certainly not imitated mainstream role models. They were the most alienated members of a "Trenchcoat Mafia", which had evolved in response to the dominant footballing "jocks" who regularly abused and attacked them.

If any group was likely to read conventional tales of the Hornblower or Chandler variety, it would be the jocks, not the rebels. It turned out that the Trenchcoats' cultural referents were more unusual - gothic heavy metal with vaguely fascist and satanic lyrics, complete with website. Just as Mark Chapman, the man who shot John Lennon, and John Hinckley, the man who shot Ronald Reagan, were keen aficionados of JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye - lovers of anti-heroes such as Holden Caulfield, not of smarty-pants detectives - so the Trenchcoat kids were into the occult and wearing black.

Thus, the jocks' mainstream cultural referents legitimised a conventionally butch and aggressive American male persona and could be said to have played a part in provoking the Trenchcoat Mafia's reaction. It might follow that it would be unwise for David Blunkett to legitimise the boyish love of gory books, but I doubt that this will have any effect on rates of violence. The problem of male aggression goes far deeper than that, as does the problem of male failure in the English syllabus - which Blunkett's proposal is intended to address.

Across the world and throughout history, more than anything else, violence is caused by not being female. Internationally, the average ratio for crimes of violence is 12 per cent female to 88 per cent male. Even at its very highest, in the West Indies, the figure is only 21 per cent female. In Britain, 40 years of feminism means women increasingly resemble men in all sorts of respects and they are more violent. But the percentage has only increased from 10 per cent to 15 per cent of such crimes being female. Throughout the world, gender differences still explain violence even more than the other two main causes, being young and having a low income.

But if men are relentlessly more prone to violence, and while this may be in part due to biology, not all men are equally violent, nor are all nations or regions. Psychodynamics within families and levels of inequality within societies are major determinants, with boys from low-income, abusive homes comprising the highest risk group.

Taken together, this suggests that environmental factors are absolutely critical in determining the extent to which the male potential for violence manifests itself. But it also suggests that consumption of more boyish books at most could only have a very minor effect on violence rates.

If Blunkett`s proposal is unobjectionable on these grounds, it none the less seems to miss the point about gender and reading skills. As the 1996 publication The Gender Divide points out, girls are different from boys in many respects that have little to do with schooling. For example, they mature earlier than boys.

The absolutely fundamental problem is that, strongly encouraged by parents and the wider society, young girls are more compliant and people-pleasing than boys and this gives them a huge advantage in the present assessment system. Both IQ tests and exams measure a child`s sustained desire to please grown-ups more than any other single trait - far more than ability.

Exams favour girls while they are young because pleasing mummy and daddy and teacher matter a great deal more to them, and exams have increased in quantity and begin at ever earlier ages. It is not until A-levels that boys begin to outperform girls in exams. Perhaps it is not until that age that those boys who buckle down begin to see a link, however tenuous, between pleasing the grown-ups in the interminable and creativity-sapping exam system and their personal futures. By contrast, at this stage, girls may be beginning the process of questioning the importance of academic and occupational success which culminates in their departure from the workplace in droves on having their first child.

When all these considerations are taken into account, we should not be too worried about boys reading exciting books. Let not David Blunkett distract us from challenging his destructive new emphasis on exam results. He needs to be reminded of that old saying. "first in school, last in life". While it may not be precisely true, exam performance is a remarkably poor predictor of lifetime achievement.

If New Labour really wanted to make a radical change it would be less concerned with creating the kinds of employees who will please employers and more directed towards emotional and intellectual well-being.

Friday magazine, cover story Oliver James's two-part TV documentary examining New Labour's record in improving educational and emotional well-being, New Britain On The Couch (based on his book), will be on Channel 4 on May 8 and 9.

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