Why Boys Fail

Stupid and lazy are two adjectives which J. ROSWELL GALLAGHER does not like to see applied to the growing boy. As the school doctor at Phillips Academy in Andover for the past sixteen years, he knows by experience that there are a good many not-so-visible reasons which explain scholastic failure. Some of these he has defined in his earlier Allantic articles“Can’t Spell, Cant Read” (June, 1948) and “ There Is No Average Boy(March, 1949). Now, in this new paper, he pleads for an understanding of a boy’s personality and implies his strong belief in the individuala point of view Tom Paine would find perfectly proper.


OF ALL the numbers trolled out to explain Johnny’s failure at school, the I.Q. has acquired the greatest respect. “Tell me his I.Q.,”said an eminent educator recently, “and I’ll tell you how he’ll do.”

The faith in the I.Q. is fantastic. The minute a boy is failing, some teacher runs to hunt up the I.Q. If it’s low: “There’s the answer right there — no need to look further.” Much of this awe would vanish if teachers determined those I.Q.s themselves. Unfortunately the tests are usually administered and scored by others, and the teacher is given a number which he or she regards with no suspicion because a specialist has produced it.

Intelligence tests are valuable. They have been devised by highly trained scientists who are trying every day further to perfect them. They are not free of error, but they are good tests if properly administered and, most important of all, when properly interpreted. They will distinguish very dull from bright and from very bright boys; but when these scores are used within a very limited range to explain failure or to predict success, they should be regarded with little respect and with no reverence.

Scholastic success is dependent on many other factors besides intelligence. Physical deficiencies, illness, poor teaching, or too frequent changes in home and school can adversely affect performance in school, and sometimes the explanation of failure is as simple as one of these. But like the I.Q. these factors do not always explain scholastic failure. While they should not be ignored, there is always need to look further.

Sam had done very well during his first three years of high school. He had made the school paper, he usually managed to squeeze himself onto the honor roll, and although no athlete he was one of the most popular boys in school. Then something happened. The first few weeks of his senior year passed by without much comment from his teachers, although some noticed that he seemed listless and inattentive; but by the time the football season was over and the school had settled into its routine, it became evident that something was decidedly wrong with Sam. He was just as courteous, just as reliable as ever, but his marks had fallen way down and no amount of prodding or offers to help seemed to strike a spark in him.

Sam’s mother came in to see the principal: she too had been upset about the boy and had sent him to their doctor for a blood count. She was sure that the moderate degree of anemia which had been found would be corrected by the iron capsules he was taking and that his apathy and preoccupied manner would shortly disappear.

Sam’s hemoglobin came up, but his marks and his behavior didn’t change: just as he apparently refused to study, so did he politely refuse to go to dances or enter into other school activities. Fortunately for Sam, the Christmas holidays came along and he asked permission to go down East for a few days’ visit with a lobster fisherman he had helped during the previous summer.

His lobsterman friend had little acquaintance with schools, no knowledge of anemia, and even in this day and age had probably never met a psychiatrist, but he was a great listener—and when you’re mending gear, you’ve plenty of time to listen. Sam’s mother is still sure it was the iron and the salt air that did the trick, and his father would never have given the matter any more thought had it not been for a chance remark the next summer. “Those two boys drowmin’ last summer sure upset that lad of yours, Mr. Stiles. You see, a lot of things happen that shake your faith if you follow the sea all your life — young hard-workin’ fellows snatched away and no good reason for it you can figure out. Hard to understand when you’re young. Wish I could have said something to straighten him out. He did seem to brighten up toward the end of his stay — guess it was the wife’s cookin’.”

Confusion — an inability to reconcile what one finds in the world with justice — can upset school grades more easily than can anemia. He sure to test his vision, check his hearing, suspect his thyroid, allow for the demands growth puts upon his vitality, but remember that primarily he is a person reacting to life — to the people and tilings and events around him. Not only precious time but the opportunity to know the boy better is lost if one lets a witless height scale or metabolism machine or hemoglobinometer provide the only answer to a boy’s problem.


IT IS reasonable to assume that a boy wants to succeed. Success in school has obvious enough rewards to make him want to do well. Well, then, what cancels that motivation?

Failure can be due to a host of different causes, but granted a reasonable degree of intelligence and not too many or too strongly unfavorable environmental influences, the area inevitably to consider is his personality. It is not an easy diagnosis, because in a particular set of circumstances one personality will be troubled, another untouched. Rarely the major fault is with the type of school or the individual teacher. Occasionally the fault lies in both the environment and the boy’s personality. More often it is his personality alone. Often adjustments can be made; sometimes one has to accept the results which fall to the lot of personalities having certain characteristics.

The sudden reality of death is only one of the occasionally devastating disturbers of youth’s complacency. A hero totters when an alcoholic father is first discovered in one of his belligerent moments or when another woman walks into the home. Everything had been fine until that day: school was fine, no problems, no worries about the future. Dad was a great guy. Bill didn’t believe that any father could drop a fly as gently as his dad, or round a buoy better, and he’d feel nice and warm inside when he’d hear some neighbor say, “That fellow Flint — what a brain, what an operator!”

And now, suddenly, what is life all about? Is this the model he had been trying to imitate? “Gee, I can’t figure it out — he’s the same, and yet he isn’t. I admire him and yet I hate his guts. I stick up for him, but I feel I shouldn’t, that I’m not being loyal to Mom. Maybe it isn’t as bad as I think — I’m just all mixed up.”

Eventually Bill talked out his problem with a patient listener and began to establish a better understanding of life. His marks took care of themselves and the circles under his eyes went away, but it was a long time before things were straightened out. Not every boy’s school work goes to pieces when his family breaks up. But remember it can be some such reason as that.

To say a boy is hopeless, worthless, no good, will never amount to anything, is strong language, rarely justified. Many do poorly for a few months, then straighten out. Circumstances change, attitudes change, conflicts or emotional blocks resolve, and all is different. Given time and sympathetic understanding, many apparently hopeless situations take on a happier air.

When a boy’s family moves to a new town or when he goes away to a boarding school for the first time, things may go badly for a few months. If he easily makes new friends, if he readily adapts himself to the peculiarities and requirements of a new situation, he may give little trouble, but a good many boys wilt to an alarming degree after being transplanted. They need friends about them. They stand up well if they’re given a little support at first — they do better if they’re not hardened off too soon. They need someone to listen to them and to talk with them about people and about themselves.

Everyone is entitled to an education, but not every boy wants a lot of it, particularly if it progresses from the three R’s to courses which come under the heading Humanities. Fnfortunately there is a tendency for a self-made man to want his son to have a “liberal education” even though, without it, the father became much better educated than he thinks, and despite the son’s lack of ability or lack of interest. He is too often kept from having education in the field that would make him a happy, productive, and intellectually honest citizen. Cultural snobbery and parental ambition have cluttered courses in the humanities and sciences with intelligent youngsters who serve their time and lose their zest for study in any field.

Joe did well enough in school until his third year of high school. That year, reports that he was lazy, sloppy, indifferent, and of very limited intellectual capacity, that he needed a good stiff jolt, began to come in to the principal’s office; and at Christmas time a report went out that Joe was failing all but one course.

Joe’s father was very upset. Ever since he had made his pile he had set his heart on having the boy go to college, on giving him all the education and culture he had been unable to have himself, He had left school after the eighth grade and had gone to work on his father’s farm: within a few years he had built it up to one of the most profitable dairies in the state, and he was able to give more and more time to hunting and fishing trips. He often told Joe how valuable a college education was, how he wished he’d had the cultural advantages which had fallen to the lot of some of his friends. Joe didn’t quite see the difference between those men and his dad, but perhaps there was some.

What to do about Joe? He was healthy, physically mature, and popular; he had no handicaps; and he had more than enough intelligence to permit him to do an adequate job in school. Joe was sure that no one likes to go to school: “It’s like taking some foul-tasting medicine — you just take it hoping it will do you some good.” A faculty member who was interested in the boy’s problems didn’t get very far until they started to talk about what Joe liked to do — how he liked to spend his spare time and what he’d like to be.

“Gee, Mr. Smith, this stuff isn’t for me. It isn’t that I don’t appreciate Dad’s point of view — schools are all right, but they couldn’t make me enjoy poetry or go for this symphony business in a hundred years. Now if they had courses in trapping in college—but even if they did you’d have to wade through all this other stuff. And it sort of puckers me to hear all this talk about culture — maybe my dad wouldn’t know Bach if he heard it, but he knows a lot of other things these long-hairs never dreamt of. Guess it’s really that I’m like my dad: I like the outdoors, farming, animals, hunting. Mere you ever on a farm in March when the lambs come?”

Joe was neither lazy nor stupid nor obstinate: he, like hundreds of others, was just a fish out of water, flopping around in an utterly futile way in a medium totally unsuited to him. He’ll never have a nodding acquaintance with the doorman at the Yale Club, but when he finishes his agricultural school he’ll probably want to go on to his state university for more advanced courses. He’ll get what any thoughtful father wants his son to have — but not quite the way his father planned it.

The number of boys in this country who go off to boarding school is very small, but the difficulties which such a transition provokes are not unlike those of the high school boy who moves from the town where he has lived all his life. Hundreds make such shifts easily and many with great profit, but what is good for some is not good for all. When things go amiss it is just as important to examine the boy’s characteristics and needs as it is critically to examine the school’s ways and people.

Andy went ofl to boarding school when he was twelve: his parents didn’t approve of the ways of his city playmates and they wanted him to have more “individual attention” than the crowded public school could give him. Andy wasn’t happy about leaving home, his family, and his friends. However, off he went. For two years he went through the motions of benefiting from education administered on an individual attention basis. Later he admitted it was better teaching than he had had at home but he doubted if it really did much good. “I was always thinking of home and the fellows the teachers were always telling me I’d have to learn to concentrate,”

Andy had tbought that after those two years of “good preparation” he would go back home to high school; those two years had been given obediently if reluctantly. But now he was to go away again. He was still a dependent, home-loving, insecure youngster with no scholarly interests or ambitions, loyal to his former friends, oblivious of their social or financial status, and not yet ready to leave a very happy home. This time the old arguments about opportunity, success, gratitude, and obligation meant even less to him; the pictures of a larger, finer school held no attraction for him. “But you’ll love it once you get there, Andy — it’s a wonderful opportunity.”

Andy wasn’t the stubborn, belligerent sort, so off he went. Intelligent, attractive, adept at small talk, he made friends easily, liked his teachers, and readily admitted that the school was a wonderful place—for someone else. After efforts to help him proved futile and patience was exhausted, low intelligence, poor preparation, and laziness were suggested as the most likely explanations and “strict discipline” the only hope for cure.

Despite his very low marks, Andy showed some promise and his teachers were reluctant to give up. The situation might have dragged on interminably had he not developed symptoms which finally took him to his doctor. “I’ve been getting pains in my head, down in back— I feel all tight in the back of my neck.” It didn’t take too long to discover what was giving him a pain in the neck, or to decide that a good frank talk with his parents was in order.

Andy will make a good citizen, and the school that he wanted to leave will turn out fine ones. “Individual attention” is desirable for some (even though it isn’t always compatible with the development of independence), but the ties to home are stronger, are less easily broken, are better left lied to a later age in some boys than in others. You just have to know the boy and then try to give him what he needs, not what you want him to have.


Nor only an excessive need for home and family, but deep-seated conflicts arising out of faulty relationships with one or both parents, can negate effort and intelligence. Mothers have borne the brunt of so many attacks—“momism" has been blamed for so much — that it may be well to let lack of space masquerade as chivalry and mention only papa.

Tom’s father is one of his community’s most respected citizens. Industrious, capable, cultured, and unsparing of his time and energy, he is very generally admired. His work has brought its rewards and he has given his family everything: a fine house, travel, education — everything, in fact, except time and affection. He has always been too busy. He never has had time to admire anything Tom has done, though occasionally he finds the opportunity to criticize or condemn.

Tom admired his father: a word of praise from him would have meant a great deal, but it was never forthcoming. Years later Tom remembered the time he had rushed downstairs to show his father his first awkward drawing of the family cat: the father’s “Humpf” and the mother’s “You’d better run along now” were the first of a long series of rebuffs. Little wonder that Tom later had less than a reasonable share of confidence or that his last year in high school was spent in dreaming of the time he could get a job and ask Sally to help him make a home.

Tom no longer admired his father, no longer wished to be like him. A little praise, a little encouragement, even at this late date might have swung him back, but now he was not only against his father but also against all he stood for. The depth of his dislike for his father and the devastating way it seemed to cancel his desire to succeed in intellectual fields were far from pleasant to contemplate. They did, however, explain the wide discrepancy between Tom’s intelligence and his marks. It was the personality which had developed out of that background and treatment — not that he was “careless, easily rattled,” not that he’d had “faulty preparation,” not that his “mind works slowly” — which caused his trouble. He would have been an excellent student if he’d had a more affectionate, more understanding, and less busy father, a man given more to praise than censure.

The “slow starter” is one of the hardest puzzles for anyone who tries to understand young people. There’s always the possibility that a mediocre student will blossom out when he gets older, just as there is the sobering thought that as every dog has his day, so a cum laude now doesn’t guarantee greatness in the future.

Which of his teachers would have thought Bob would amount, to anything? Awkward, shy, overweight, he entered high school at thirteen. Apparently his only asset was good behavior: his intelligence test scores remained repeatedly at the very bottom of his class, and in each of his first three years of high school he failed at least one course and barely squeaked by in the others. A nice boy; very dull; tries hard; may pass; no trouble in the classroom” — such were the persistent reports.

In his senior year there was a hint that Bob was “waking up.” That year he failed no courses (there were three in the sixties) and in one course, his first real try at a science, he turned up with an honor grade. Unmentioned, unsung, and bid adieu by his teachers with evident relief, he went off to college. It was a very good college, and he took what are generally regarded as very hard courses; yet he was no longer at the bottom of his class. By graduation time he had all honor grades, and a few years later this “nice, very dull” boy had earned his Ph.D.

The “slow starters” are worth remembering. Obviously they are “poor bets"; it is the very wise person who can predict their future improvement, the understanding one who is willing to withhold his judgment. Given support, patience, and a feeling that someone has confidence in him, many an able “slow starter” has confounded those who discarded him in favor of a surer bet.

The cause of failure to do well in school may be low intelligence, poor health, physical handicaps, insufficient preparation, too many other interests, a language disability, an emotional or deep-seated personality disorder, poor reading ability or poor study habits. Undoubtedly the list could be lengthened; certainly no one of those factors should be overlooked. More important, however, than the efficient use of a check list and the employment of all manner of modern tests and aids to diagnosis is to remember that it is a person, not a problem, you are trying to help. Despite the check list, you may not find the cause; but if you’ve been thinking of a person, not a problem, at least you’ll find a boy. His attitudes and objectives may differ from yours, they may not fit the job at hand, but his ultimate contribution to society may well be no less valuable than yours.

Refuse to think of boys as students — after all, only rarely is it literally true; get to think of them as people. They need your patience, your confidence in them, your praise as well as your censure. They need you to look up to — and they need that you not look down on them. They need a feeling of security and an opportunity to venture. They need home and friends and the chance to become independent. They need your support and increasing opportunities to behave in a responsible fashion. They need to develop their own aptitudes and interests, to fulfill their own ambitions. They need help at times, and always a feeling that someone is there to help; but just as badly do they need the chance to do things by themselves both for themselves and for others.

The day they are born is not too soon to begin to develop a warm relationship between father and son: it is difficult to dislike someone who loves you — it is impossible that distaste for what a parent stands for will ever impede the scholastic progress of an affectionate son. They are all different; so what one needs, another can do well without. There is no one best way for all.

Most of all, young people need adults to be curious about them, not prejudiced, not opinionated. Curiosity breeds knowledge: if you get to wondering what makes them tick, and why they skip a beat now and then, you will stand a chance of understanding them better.