HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Boys Adrift: Unmotivated Young Males

This week's Journal of the American Medical Association contains a book review of Leonard Sax's Boys Adrift.  The book examines the reasons for the lack of motivation and apathy allegedly found among current young men.  JAMA reviewer,Maureen E. Lyon, PhD, states,

Concern about ne’er do well sons is ancient. In a quote attributed to Socrates by Plato, Socrates laments, "The children now live in luxury . . . and love chatter instead of exercise." Leonard Sax, a family physician and research psychologist, continues this tradition in Boys Adrift, arguing that there is a growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men. Five factors are identified to account for this proposed decline: (1) feminization of education; (2) video games; (3) increased prescription of psychotropic medications that affect the motivational systems of the brain; (4) exposure to endocrine disrupters; and (5) lack of heroic role models. . . . .

The impact of educational changes on boys is powerfully and persuasively presented. Late cognitive maturation in most boys compared with girls puts boys at risk for failure: first, because girls, on average, may perform better than boys on the same task; and second, because the revised curricula of kindergarten and first grade have become more academic and less experiential. Furthermore, there are excellent references demonstrating that boys learn better in competitive environments, in contrast to the philosophy of some new curricula in which everyone is a winner. Zero tolerance for violence in schools may be further inhibiting the competitive spirit that can help boys succeed. 

Most provocative is the author's speculation on the long-term effects among boys taking amphetamine-based medication for attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder. Animal studies demonstrate an association between amphetamines and changes in the nucleus accumbens, related to increased apathy and decreased motivation to act. Although Sax provides a disclaimer about cause and effect with humans, this distinction may be lost on parents. . . .

Is there support for this thesis that boys and young men are less motivated to succeed than 30 to 40 years ago? The evidence of the increased proportion of young women, relative to young men, in college is cited. Yet Census Bureau statistics on women and men graduating from college with a bachelor's degree show that the percentage of men graduating increased from the 1950s through the 1970s, where it then hovered between 25% and 30% until 2006. In 2006, 25.3% of men between the ages of 25 and 29 graduated from college, not a significant decrease over time. Yes, there is a higher proportion of women than men in college. But is this change detrimental to males? This is a different question not addressed in Boys Adrift. 

Boys Adrift is at its strongest in providing practical advice to parents about how to increase their sons' academic motivation; how to set appropriate limits on video game use; and how to protect their sons from the potential harm of psychotropic medications and environmental estrogens. Boys Adrift is at its weakest in supporting the thesis that there is an epidemic of unmotivated and underachieving young men. 

On a humorous note, perhaps I should institute a no computer game playing in class policy for my male students (I know some of them must be playing - there is way too much typing going on at times).  It will be for their own good . . .

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