Let’s say I was in a position to run a social experiment that involved two groups of boys ages 14 to 16. The experiment would run for five consecutive days. Each of the boys would be placed in a comfortable room that contained an overstuffed chair, a nap-worthy couch, a bean bag chair, the ability to play whatever music they desired, and access to whatever type of food they wanted when they wanted it. They would be able to request the room be painted the color of their choosing, lighting would be plentiful and adjustable.
The room would also have a large work table that contained four milk crates: one filled with age-appropriate fiction titles, one filled with non-fiction titles on a variety of subjects, one crate filled with broken small appliances and electronics (toaster, cell phone, hand blender, &c.), and one crate filled with hand tools, hardware, glue and a soldering iron. There is also a spiral-bound notebook and a selection of pens, pencils and markers, a ruler and a pair of scissors.
There are no outside phones, cell service or access, televisions, or video games. There are no clocks on the wall and no watches allowed.
The boys have to check into their room for eight consecutive hours each day, their choice of time, and they are not allowed to bring anything but themselves into the room. One half of the boys are given the following instructions:
“We are doing a study on the perception of time in teens in a time-free environment. You are to spend eight hours a day in the room doing as you please. What you do is not our concern, you won’t be monitored. You may elect to keep a journal of your experience in the room or participate in a short discussion with our staff afterward.”
The other half of the boys are given the following instructions:
“We are doing a study on the perception of time in teens in a time-free environment. You are to spend eight hours a day in the room doing as you please. What you do is not our concern, though you will be monitored. Afterward you will be asked to participate in a short survey of your activities and a discussion with our staff.”
Of course both groups will be monitored, and for the study they will be asked some nominal questions concerning their perception of time, but that’s not the question put forth by the environment and the expectation. The question is, How many of those books will be read, which ones, and what percentage of their time will be dedicated to reading?
My amateur hypothesis is that the group of boys told they won’t be monitored, who are allowed the “out” of a journal or a discussion on their experience, are not going to read as much as the other group. The other group, knowing they will be watched and hearing the word “survey” will no doubt feel the need to read — or make a greater attempt — due to an expectation to have to justify their time.
In other words, how many boys see reading as an obligation to expectant adults?
There would be any number of curiosities that might come from the data collected. How many of the boys, for example, will keep a journal while others use the notebook for drawing or calculating information? Do the boys turn to reading out of boredom with whatever else they do to occupy their time? If they are also told that they can take home with them anything from the room after they have finished the study, what do they take?
I thought about this randomly walk taking a walk last night. How it got into my head, I don’t know. I was wondering partly what I would do in that situation, what I would choose. Would I feel free enough to start taking apart things and building something or would I have gone for the books? If given the choice I think I’d have preferred the more daunting debriefing rather than share a journal, which I know I would have kept. If I did read, and the non-fiction titles were the sort I grew up with — dry blocks of text, murky color printing, dull topics — then I doubt I would have touched them. If, however, among those books there were magazines like Make or some old Popular Mechanics, or perhaps some how-to books on film-making and photography, I might have found some inspiration to read a bit of non-fiction.
With all the data compiled I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the boys spent as much time reading and exploring with the junk as they did eating and napping on the couch. Eat, sleep, read, tinker. If these turned out to be the four-part cycle of a teen boy’s daily life then I wouldn’t mind seeing the integration of more tinkering into formal education, supported with reading that matched.
Schools used to include shop classes, or “the manual arts” as they were called in my junior and senior high school, classes that included architectural drawing, print shop, wood shop, metal shop, electric shop and, in high school, auto shop (and, yes, for the girls this meant typing, “business skills” (secretarial stenography), home ec and, in some places, practical nursing). There was a time when we felt that the mission of a school was to prepare emerging young adults for a world beyond school, and that didn’t necessarily guarantee or require a move toward college. Preparing a blue collar worker was just as important as preparing a white collar, the challenge to create a literate mechanic equal to giving a scholar the appreciation of a craftsman. If you want to know half of what’s wrong with American business you needn’t look any farther than the “back to basics” movement of the Reagan era.
My point isn’t political, at least not intentionally. My point is that we used to honor and acknowledge that part of an education included organized forms of tinkering. We used to send the message to all kids, boys and girls, that reading and history are important, but so is physical activity and learning how to properly use hand tools. I think we do many boys a disservice by not giving them the room to muck about and learn how to explore the world of physical things. By marginalizing their non-reading activities to be outside of the school environment we send the message that these things are less valid, less important, and as a consequence make boys feel less enthused with their education by telling them perhaps half of what they find interesting isn’t worth exploring.
The most radical thing we could do with regards to teen boys is let them regain their balance between reading and exploring. One without the other kills the love of both.