Why Can’t Jonathan Succeed?

Why can’t Jonathan succeed? Ask his old man, if you can find him in this story.

Alas, poor Jonathan; his Washington D.C. high school failed him miserably. He barely passed after years of ditching classes, stringing together a chain of Ds and Fs and acting as if just showing up  was reason enough to be awarded a diploma.

This pathetic story was told in a two-part series (here and here) in the Washington Post that rightly indicted the D.C. school system for deep-seated incompetence and indifference. It is worth reading, for what it says, but — perhaps more importantly — for what it doesn’t.

Jonathan, in his second attempt to graduate (no explanation was forthcoming about how he even got as far as his senior year), was running out of time, as teacher after counselor bent over backwards to give him every chance possible. Despite papers not turned in and exams flunked (everyone says he’s a bright kid) Jonathan keeps telling himself that he’s going to graduate, as if he had as much contact with reality as the Mad Hatter.

Yet, he apparently knew the system as well as anyone, because, with the aid of some work-working and sympathetic staff, he belatedly made the grade, just barely. He eventually received a diploma, devalued as it was by Jonathan’s obvious failure to even come close to mastering the materials.

The highly detailed series examined seemingly every possible cause for Jonathan’s sorry experience but one: the absence of a father married to and living at home with his mother.

Yes, there was the usual in-depth narratives about the caring, hard-working single mother;  the idealistic young teacher who manages, at least superficially, to penetrate Jonathan’s armor of indifference, and the school principal who whose heroic effort to drag the school out of the mud evokes the courage and futility of Spartan King Leonidas and his 300 trying to hold off the Persians at Thermopylae.

In the story’s thousands of words, the mention of the father was astonishingly brief. He was, the story said, not married to Jonathan’s mother, but was in “daily” contact with his son, as if that made everything right. Details of that alleged daily involvement with his son were non-existent except for one assertion: He saved $20,000 for a college education and a used car for Jonathan, if he graduated. There are only two possible explanations for the newspaper’s failure to examine this angle, and neither is acceptable. Either the paper is ignorant about decades of research that shows the importance of a married father in a son’s (and daughter’s) life, or it doesn’t care.

Fifteen years after the Murphy Brown hoo-ha, set off when Vice President Dan Quayle criticized the unmarried television character for choosing to become a single mother, the mainstream media still can’t grasp the idea of the importance of a married father. That research concluded that father absence increases the risk of teen pregnancy, juvenile crime, emotional and behavioral problems and, nota bene, school failure.

The late and eminent Cornell University developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, summed up the research this way: "Controlling for factors such as low income, children growing up in [father absent] households are at a greater risk for experiencing a  variety of behavioral and educational problems, including extremes of hyperactivity and withdrawal; lack of attentiveness in the classroom; difficulty in deferring gratification; impaired academic achievement; school misbehavior; absenteeism; dropping out; involvement in socially alienated peer groups, and the so-called ‘teenage syndrome’ of behaviors that tend to hang together — smoking, drinking, early and frequent sexual experience, and in the more extreme cases, drugs, suicide, vandalism, violence, and criminal acts."  

In a way, this is really a back-door attack on (traditional) marriage because to posit a beneficial effect on children of both biological parents in the home is a direct challenge to the canons of same-sex marriage. No one, certainly at the Washington Post or other politically correct coastal media, would want to have to run for cover from the feculent storm that would descend on them for saying such a thing.  

Yet, avoiding the marriage imperative is to ignore more research confirming the importance of marriage, for men, by taming destructive, macho behavior and encouraging closer and more beneficial roles with his children.

Journalistically, the Post’s failure to consider the injurious effect of married father absence on Jonathan’s muddled life discredits what otherwise would be Pulitzer-Prize quality work. Sadly, its absence from the series greatly elevates the chances that the Pulitzer jury will give the coveted journalism award to the series.

More seriously, though, is the damage that the omission does for public understanding of how to extract society from what the Post would have us believe is a nearly intractable problem. Public acceptance and appreciation of the heart of the problem — father absence — is the only way to prevent future Jonathans from poisoning the future of so many other students.


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