My friend Jay Manifold calls my post about young “Percy” (Archives, 21st December) an inadvertent argument for gender-segregated classrooms.

Maybe. I’m not sure.

No doubt one reason that some boys behave badly in school is because girls are there. On the one hand, the presence of a female audience can inspire the worst sort of typically male dominant-aggressive behaviors, aimed at fellow students and teachers alike. It’s hard for boys to learn anything when they’re too busy struggling over who gets to be the alpha-male. On the other hand, some guys just have a hard time keeping their eyes, their minds, and their hands off the ladies. Maybe if the girls were elsewhere, in a classroom (or a school) of their own, the boys would be less disruptive and less distracted.

But such a scheme could backfire. Dominant-aggressive behavior is an inescapable male reality. Men are status seekers and hierarchy builders by nature, whether or not women are around to watch. If anything, girls may put a damper on some of the cruder methods by which boys seek status among other boys. For example, most girls tend to take a rather dim view of spit-ball wars and farting contests—two all time male favorites, either of which can quickly reduce the best laid lesson plan to rubble. When girls are around, boys are at least a bit more likely to seek status in less disgusting ways. In rare cases, they might even want to show off how smart they are and how much they know.

In rare cases.

This is why the first thing I do when I get a new class roster is to count the number of girls on it. The more the better. Nothing makes my heart sink faster than a class full of boys. (Since I mostly teach remedial courses, my heart sinks pretty fast pretty often when the new rosters come out, for such courses tend to be overwhelmingly male.)

As for those boys who find in girls not so much an inspiration to mischief as an irresistible distraction, they would probably benefit the most from gender-segregated schooling. But this is a much smaller group than the mischief-makers, and much less troublesome, both to themselves and to others.

All in all, I wouldn’t mind putting girls and boys in different classes or in different schools—but only so long as I get to teach the girls. I pity whoever gets stuck with the boys. And I pity even more the smart and interesting boys, trapped there in the zoo with the animals. For there are always a few bright and promising guys who actually belong in school and who could benefit from it—much more than they do, in fact, were they and their interests not overwhelmed by the exigencies imposed by the Percy’s of this world.

So no. The point of my anecdote was not that boys and girls should be educated separately, but that some boys (and some girls) should not be in school at all. It does them no good, and they do their classmates no good. They would be better off, and we would all be better off, if they were out of school and onto the job market as quickly as possible. For they need an education in the realities of survival far more than they need an education in elementary algebra.

But instead of getting these kids out of the classroom, we have made them the focus of the classroom. It’s insane. Yet it’s apparently unstoppable. Neither left nor right seems prepared to face the facts about them. The left still believes that enough money could prepare them all for a nice liberal arts college. The right still believes that weaker teacher’s unions, tougher testing standards, and a morning prayer or two would fix everything.

And neither left nor right is willing to deal honestly with the fact that they are disproportionately (I mean, really disproportionately) African-American.

(They are also, of course, disproportionately male—but nobody seems to worry much about that.)

Until all this changes, public debate about education will remain, quite simply, beside the point.

Oh, well. Let all that be as it may. In the meantime, I must get back to begging Percy--and Bobby—to help me help them.



At its best, Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers is better than his film of The Fellowship of the Ring; at its worst, it’s worse.

Gollum and the ents are better realized than I would have thought possible—true to the book yet never ridiculous or embarrassing. Gollum’s incessant babble could have been risible in a bad way. Talking trees could have been even worse. But in the event, both are so appealing that one would like to see more of them.

On the other hand, Aragorn’s tumble off a cliff and subsequent miraculous survival is both stupid and pointless. One recovery from a near death experience is enough for any movie; Aragorn’s comes way too soon after Gandalf’s, and is way too similar, for comfort. The idea seems to be to provide occasion for a flashback to Rivendell and Arwen, but that flashback is itself unnecessary: it tells us nothing new and impedes the progress of the story. I would gladly trade the whole sequence for more about the ents.

The same goes for the later scene with Faramir, Frodo, and Sam in Osgiliath. For dramatic purposes, it’s not a bad idea to make Faramir a more dynamic character than he is in the book. So by all means start him out like his brother, determined to bring the ring back to Minas Tirith, and then give him a change of heart. But the change has to be dramatically convincing—and here it’s just not. Frodo nearly hands the ring over to the enemy and suddenly Faramir decides to send him on his way.

Come again?

If anything, Faramir should be surer than ever that Frodo is not to be trusted with so great a responsibility. At this point, I think the director has sacrificed plausibility to a cool visual (and, make no mistake about it, Frodo’s face to face encounter with the winged ringwraith is a cool visual). That sacrifice is among the endemic mistakes of present day movie making, aimed as it is at juvenile tastes. They should have stuck with Tolkien on this one.