The Trouble With Boys

That’s Newsweek’s cover story this week, and it’s all about how boys are falling behind girls in school. The premise that runs throughout the piece is that schools—nay, the very fabric of our society!—have become so feminized that boys can’t possibly function. Overtly, the article notes:

Some scholars, notably Christina Hoff Sommers, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, charge that misguided feminism is what's been hurting boys. In the 1990s, she says, girls were making strong, steady progress toward parity in schools, but feminist educators portrayed them as disadvantaged and lavished them with support and attention. Boys, meanwhile, whose rates of achievement had begun to falter, were ignored and their problems allowed to fester (click here for related essay).
Couple of problems with that paragraph. One: No notation that the American Enterprise Institute is a conservative—and actively anti-feminist—thinktank.

Two: The “related essay” is written by feminist scholar (and mother of three boys) Carol Gilligan, who has written a thoughtful piece on how helping both girls and boys doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, and that “the remarkable transformation in the lives of girls over the past 20 years suggests that similar results could be achieved with boys.” But Gilligan’s view doesn’t get equal time in the main piece—just a link to a side essay—while Sommers’ view stands alone, uncritiqued and lacking context.

Three: How, exactly, have schools changed so dramatically in their structure that they now explicitly favor girls? I’m 31 years old; my life spans the exact time frame since the passing of Title IX and all the supposed radical changes in education that helped girls and hurt boys. All of us were expected to sit quietly in class, raise our hands, follow the rules, etc.—exactly like school was (minus, perhaps, knuckles getting rapped with rulers) back when girls were largely denied access to public schooling. Now, suddenly when boys are falling behind, we’re being told that the very structure which was developed when public education was predominantly boys-only is hurting boys, coupled with the claim that feminists are somehow to blame for it.

And that appears to be the biggest problem with most of the stories being written about gender and education lately—the notion that the nebulous concept of “feminization” is responsible for some boys struggling is being treated as conventional wisdom, while any other explanations are relegated to side notes, if they’re even addressed at all. The suggestion that girls’ successes be used as a model is routinely absent from articles such as this one, perhaps because nothing more radical than a cultural imperative to encourage women’s education, and an expectation that girls step up to the plate, can be pointed to as evidence of girls’ educational surge.

And, mind you, though it’s much more convenient for these articles (and many of the studies upon which they’re based) to turn this into a boys vs. girls issue, like all gender issues, it’s hardly that straightforward. Not all boys are struggling, and not all girls are succeeding. But an acknowledgement that children of both sexes respond well to one type of educational structure or another wouldn’t allow for a parade of experts to be introduced to reassure us in fancy words that “Boys will be boys.”

Primatologists have long observed that juvenile male chimps battle each other not just for food and females, but to establish and maintain their place in the hierarchy of the tribe. Primates face off against each other rather than appear weak. That same evolutionary imperative, psychologists say, can make it hard for boys to thrive in middle school—and difficult for boys who are failing to accept the help they need. The transition to middle school is rarely easy, but like the juvenile primates they are, middle-school boys will do almost anything to avoid admitting that they're overwhelmed. "Boys measure everything they do or say by a single yardstick: does this make me look weak?" says Thompson. "And if it does, he isn't going to do it." That's part of the reason that videogames have such a powerful hold on boys: the action is constant, they can calibrate just how hard the challenges will be and, when they lose, the defeat is private.
Yeesh. Now, being a woman who has no particular affinity for appearing weak and a cultural anthropologist who doesn’t much care for biological determinism as a default explanation for cultural phenomena, I would be inclined to ask the question, “Might we consider what it is about our culture that reinforces an association between accepting help and weakness among boys and men?” See, even though we’re primates, we’re not chimps. And one of the things that separates us from chimps is the capacity for cultural adjustment. If males are biologically determined to “measure everything they do or say by a single yardstick” which determines the appearance of weakness, the best way to address the associated educational issue isn’t necessarily to bend an existing structure to accommodate an urge that isn’t a strength in other areas of life, either, but addressing the failings of our culture at large to disassociate need from weakness.

Undoubtedly, there are those who would accuse me of further attempts to “feminize” the culture, but a boy who learns that seeking help is not a sign of weakness is more likely to become a man who seeks medical treatment at the first sign of trouble—one of many reasons why redefining “weakness” could benefit men.

As a final note, this article, which saw fit to mention the feminization of education, biological determinism, and the lack of male role models as possible reasons why boys are falling behind, fails to mention something rather important.

Boys have always been boys, but the expectations for how they're supposed to act and learn in school have changed. In the last 10 years, thanks in part to activist parents concerned about their children's success, school performance has been measured in two simple ways: how many students are enrolled in accelerated courses and whether test scores stay high. Standardized assessments have become commonplace for kids as young as 6. Curricula have become more rigid. Instead of allowing teachers to instruct kids in the manner and pace that suit each class, some states now tell teachers what, when and how to teach. At the same time, student-teacher ratios have risen, physical education and sports programs have been cut and recess is a distant memory. These new pressures are undermining the strengths and underscoring the limitations of what psychologists call the "boy brain"—the kinetic, disorganized, maddening and sometimes brilliant behaviors that scientists now believe are not learned but hard-wired.
Activist parents. Some states. Standardized assessments have become commonplace. Curricula have become more rigid. Well, that’s a lovely dance that manages to avoid the ten-ton elephant hiding between the lines: No Child Left Behind.

NCLB punishes schools whose pupils’ scores don’t improve. When funding is predicated on test scores, is it any wonder that schools are teaching how to pass tests, rather than teaching learning as a lifelong process? If this structure is leaving boys behind, it isn’t because of a feminist agenda, that’s for bloody sure. Instead, those concerned about boys’ education would do well to turn their eyes and their pointed fingers of blame in the direction of Washington, D.C.—and the manliest of the manly brush-clearin’ cowboys from whose private-schooled brain this idea sprung.

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