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.

His Mind Holds Summer

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What’s a schoolboy thinking? In April, he’s looking forward to June, and in August, he’s remembering July.

It’s not that learning doesn’t interest him. He will ace any quiz you give him about baseball stats or football rosters or Star Wars or ham radio. The mind craves knowledge as the body craves food, Mason says, and he will root out morsels that appeal to him. So why, in the classroom, does the schoolboy refuse to eat?

I’m speaking broadly, of course. Many boys take to their lessons—some even take pride in them—and many who don’t are simply lazy or undisciplined. But the average young man, I think, views school in the same way as Robert Francis’s farm boy:

The lesson, the long lesson, has been summer.
His mind holds summer, as his skin holds sun.
For once the homework, all of it, was done.

In other words, school must be endured till summer comes, when the real learning begins.

What will make a young man care about school? I suggest three things: teamwork, responsibility, and challenge.

First, a boy thrives when he feels himself part of a team. He needs to measure himself against other boys and (especially) men, and he wants to be sure that his presence is needed. If it’s not, he will know, and he would rather be somewhere else. This is easy to see in sports, but less clear in the modern school, which is designed to measure individual progress. How does one make a boy feel like a school needs him?

In his book-length profile of Frank L. Boyden, the long-time headmaster of Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, John McPhee says, “A new boy at Deerfield cannot have been there very long before the idea is impressed upon him that he is a part of something that won’t work unless he does his share.” Boyden was by all accounts a headmaster of exceptional quality who inspired devotion in students and faculty alike, but he didn’t have a secret recipe for success. When asked why his school was so successful, he said,

We just treat the boys as if we expect something of them, and we keep them busy. So many of our things simply exist. They’re not theory. They’re just living life. I expect most of our boys want to do things the way we want them done.


My philosophy—I can’t express it, really: I believe in boys. I believe in keeping them busy, and in the highest standards of scholarship. I believe in a very normal life.

“I believe in boys.” Deerfield students had many chances to experience Boyden’s trust firsthand: rather than hand out report cards, Boyden sat down with each student six times a year and told him where he stood academically. He also asked the boys about their classes and about their teachers, impressing upon them the idea that their thoughts mattered (even if, ultimately, Boyden disagreed). Boys that feel like part of a team are just as likely to get in trouble, behaviorally and academically, as though who feel like outcasts, but they are much more likely to likely to listen when they are called out. Between 1902 and 1966, when McPhee published his book, Boyden only expelled five students, and all five were let go because they showed no remorse for what they had done.

A boy may always feel the draw of summer, but if he can be convinced that his presence at school matters, he’ll find it easier to apply his energies to the task in front of him.

A Report in September

Esther Meek once made an offhand comment I have always remembered. She said, “You can’t look into a human face and not be changed.” I think of this remark whenever I step through the door of the school where I work and simultaneously tug my mask up over my nose and mouth. Everything I believe about teaching leads me to say that a teacher’s face is his most important tool. A shift in expression can inspire, challenge, encourage, confront, or change a student. With half of my face covered, connecting with my students requires exponentially more effort. They can’t read my expression and I can’t gauge their reactions.

I have to remind myself that, even without masks, students rarely reveal what they’re thinking. In some ways, that’s the whole challenge of teaching: startling the student out of “I don’t care” into “But what about…?” I’d rather see a thicket of outraged faces than rows of listless blanks. The masks only make it more difficult. On the other hand, I’ve found that, in certain situations, I can use the anonymity my own mask provides to my advantage. Discipline, for example, is much easier when the offender can’t read your expression and projects his own guilt onto the judge. I may as well wear a mirror to reflect the student’s own conscience-stricken face back to him. But discipline is only one part of what a teacher does. The kind of change that goes down to the bones needs face-to-face interaction.

The other anti-COVID steps taken by schools in my area have revealed the arbitrariness of all scholastic practices. For example, the administration at my school has encouraged us to take the students outside occasionally to give them some fresh air and a break from their face coverings. This being Alabama, the weather isn’t always pleasant, but when it is, I catch myself thinking, “Why don’t we do this more often? Why teach seven subjects back to back with every student sitting at a desk?” I know that there are other schooling systems that are way ahead of me in this area (Charlotte Mason, Montessori, homeschooling). I simply mean that the pandemic has put up for discussion many things that were previously off the table.

It’s amazing to see how cleverly the students have adapted. Since the water fountains have been turned off to reduce the spread of germs, every student brings a water bottle. Students are not allowed to play games that involve physical contact, so they play kickball, using discarded masks as bases. I have noted before the level of creativity inspired by the coronavirus. In some ways, responding to such a bizarre September is an education in itself.

The Value of E-Books

In Monday’s issue of Time’s Corner, I asked my readers this question: What are ebooks worth to you? What are your ebook reading practices? The replies not only included a broad spectrum of reading practices, they also contained a variety of opinions on the value of ebooks. I decided to focus on the former category in today’s Thursday Thread. The latter is included here.

In my mind, ebooks should always be cheaper than a new hard copy — there is no iterative cost to an ebook, and they have the drawback of being not only a non-transferrable purchase but also being technically only licensed to me and not owned by me. In practice, I’m usually willing to pay about 10% of the print price for an ebook. I started to say I would pay up to $5, but if the book is only $10 in print, I wouldn’t pay more than maybe $1 or $2 before I just bit the bullet and bought a new or used copy. But if I see an ebook listed for more than $5, I almost immediately dismiss it; it would have to be a very expensive book, like Frisardi’s translation of the Convivio which cannot be had for less than $125, before I would consider paying a double-digit price for the ebook.  


Regarding value: publishers are going to charge whatever is the most they can get without losing significant sales numbers, not listen to this logic, but [ebooks] should cost the hard cover price, minus whatever percent of that price represents the physical production of the book.


ebooks are worth a lot, depending on the content. ebooks are products, just like books. they’re digital, which is (i think) the crux of this discussion, and people are still deciding if they like paying for digital things. however, placing worth on something because you can touch it is the wrong way to think about worth.

worth has to do with output compared to input. you pay for spotify because the enjoyment you get from listening to music is worth $10/mo to you; you pay for a car because the usefulness of a car is worth $10K or $200/mo. cost ultimately comes down to how much people will pay for the product, so the question of worth comes down to whether or not the output justifies the (cost and time) input.

books (e- or not) have two potential outputs: enjoyment and ideas. if you’ll get $500 worth of ideas out of a book, then it should be worth up to $499. if you get 8 hours of enjoyment out of a book, the amount you’re willing to pay for it should depend on how much you value your leisure time. it’s important to keep in mind that a book’s output isn’t binary: you’ll get ideas and enjoyment, and you should factor in both.

i suppose this stance begs a few questions, so i’ll try to address some counter-arguments at a high level:

1. yes, there are counter examples. some books shouldn’t be ebooks, and i suppose some people shouldn’t buy ebooks.

2. maybe different people should pay different amounts for the same book. maybe there should be a variable cost, or a pay-what-you-want model for books. some people will get more value out of a book than others, and maybe those people should be able to recognize the value and compensate the author for it.

3. no, i probably wouldn’t pay $500 for a book, but i have paid that much for what is essentially an ebook because i believe i will get at least that much value out of it over the next several years.


To me, one of the main reasons why ebooks are worth less is because they tend to have copy-protection software, so there’s no guarantee that they’ll even work in 5 or 10 years. My physical books will be good for the rest of my life, and in some cases probably my kids’ lives.

The “they don’t use paper” argument doesn’t make much sense to me. My willingness to pay for a book is determined by how much value I get out of it, not how much it cost to produce. If you printed Pride and Prejudice with one word per page, I wouldn’t suddenly be willing to pay $500 for it because it used so much paper. Conversely, I am sometimes willing to pay more for an audio book than a physical book, because I have much more time in my day for listening than for reading. An audiobook download also doesn’t require paper, but since it’s more useful to me, I’m willing to pay more for it (though if I can get it for free via Hoopla or Libby, I will definitely take that!).