Responsibility and Challenge

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In the last issue of TC, I made the claim that three ingredients necessary to a boy’s education are teamwork, responsibility, and challenge. I’m not saying that including these three ingredients will solve all the problems that exist in modern schools. I’m merely observing the boys I interact with day to day and trying to understand why they find sports so much more attractive than academics. In other words, is there a way to make a boy care about school?

Some of you reading this will say, “A school shouldn’t cater to a boy’s tastes. The school should shape the boy’s tastes.” I agree with both statements, but I think it’s a false dichotomy. The rules of basketball don’t bend according to the players’ whims, but a good coach will study his players and adjust his practices according to their abilities. My question is not, “What does a boy need to learn?” but “How do we help him learn what he needs to learn?”

I had originally planned to write this in three installments. The first installment was several weeks ago, and so, to prevent what was meant to be a short series from going on forever, I’m going to cram Installments 2 & 3 into this issue. And by cram, I mean make one very succinct point. You’re welcome.


If W. H. Auden had ever founded a “College for Bards,” which he sometimes daydreamed about, the curriculum would have included not only reading, writing, and memorizing, but also care for domestic animals and garden plots. I suspect that he thought interacting with the natural world would help a budding poet be a little less of a fathead.

I like his idea, and not just for poets. Anyone who spends most of his time engaged in intellectual work needs to get out in the fresh air every once in a while. Working with your hands reminds you that the world does in fact exist and, what’s more, it doesn’t exist to please you. In Matthew Crawford’s book Shop Class as Soul Craft, he says, “The moral significance of work that grapples with material things may lie in the simple fact that such things lie outside the self.” In other words, you aren’t the center of the universe. Everybody needs to learn that at some point, boys perhaps most of all.

This is where responsibility comes in. Put a boy in charge of another living creature and he must choose between helping it thrive or letting it shrivel. Either way, he must do something. That’s an important lesson, and if the boy does his job, the school gets fresh vegetables besides.


A long time ago, the word “challenge” basically meant a false accusation, or rather an accusation that a person would have to defend himself against. To “rise to the challenge,” then, could mean something along the lines of “prove ‘em wrong.” You’ve been called a coward. Prove ‘em wrong. You’ve been accused of theft. Prove ‘em wrong. Though we now use the word to mean “a difficult task,” it still carries an element of risk, a sense that something is on the line. If you succeed in overcoming a challenge, you will be justly praised. If you fail, you lose more than whatever goal you were reaching for. You lose the faith others have placed in you.

When you issue a challenge to a group of boys, many of them will take it as a test of their manhood. Boys take every opportunity to prove their manhood to themselves and to others, often without even thinking about it. “At any moment of a man’s life,” says Anthony Esolen in his book Defending Boyhood, “his manhood is subject to trial, to be won, again and again, to be confirmed or to be canceled. A man can lose forever his right to stand beside other men. He can fall to being no man at all.” Boys take their own measure (and that of their peers) against the standard of manhood, and issuing a challenge is like calling them babies and then saying, “Prove me wrong.”

Once again, I’m merely guessing here, but I have a hunch that many boys have never felt the gut-wrenching need to rise to and repudiate a challenge that was issued to them by a teacher. Rarely is there anything at stake other than their own financial future, which, let’s face it, most boys assume will take care of itself. In sports, the challenges and outcomes are very clear: you either win or lose. In academics, failures are more private and even somewhat relative. A student can work half-heartedly and still pass.

To make a boy do his best, the teacher should challenge him. But how? What would make a young man feel as though what he did in the classroom actually mattered? I’m still mulling over this one.

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