My column in today’s Boston Globe deals with the so-called “boy crisis.”
IN THE EARLY 1990s, talk about girls as an endangered species was everywhere. There were studies purporting to show that patriarchy-damaged girls suffered a disastrous drop in self-esteem in adolescence. The American Association of University Women published a report titled ”How Schools Shortchange Girls,” which landed on the front pages of many newspapers. Educators and legislators alike rushed to tackle the problem of gender bias that was allegedly keeping girls from reaching their full potential — despite the fact that, by then, girls were already graduating from America’s colleges in higher numbers than boys.
Today, it’s the ”boy crisis” that’s making headlines, from The Weekly Standard to Newsweek. We are presented with alarming numbers: 58 percent of first-year college students are female. Because male students are more likely to drop out, their share will shrink to 40 percent by graduation. ”Man shortage” is the new bane of campuses. While the gender gap in academic achievement has long been a serious problem in the black community — by the mid-1990s, two-thirds of college diplomas earned by African-Americans went to women — it has been growing among Hispanics and whites as well.
What’s going on? Some blame an antimale bias in education. A few years ago, Christina Hoff Sommers, a scholar at the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute, wrote a book, ”The War Against Boys,” arguing that feminist zeal is causing many teachers to treat maleness as ”toxic” and to try to reshape boys in a female image. Gender differences in the ”wiring” of the human brain are an increasingly popular explanation as well. Psychologist and author Michael Gurian is a leading proponent of the view that boys and girls learn differently and that these differences must be taken into account if we want to ensure a quality education for everyone. Some believe that in many instances, single-sex classes are the answer.
Attention to the issue is welcome. For years, the justified celebrations of female achievement have overshadowed the fact that boys and young men were starting to lag behind. Many feminists have dismissed the college attendance gap as insignificant, arguing that men can get well-paying jobs even without college while women need a degree just to catch up. Yet the fact is that in this knowledge-based economy, men without a higher education are increasingly falling behind.
What about the remedies? No possible solution should be off-limits. It would be ridiculous, for instance, to refuse to consider the possibility of biological sex differences in learning styles because of political correctness. Yet it’s also important to remember such differences are often dwarfed by individual variation. Helen Smith, a psychologist and blogger who has championed the cause of boys in school, cautions that, while recognizing differences, we should not lapse into stereotyping: In general, boys may be more physically active and girls may be more verbal, but a lot of children will not fit those patterns. Some of the fashionable talk about boys getting in trouble due to their more rebellious and individualistic ways has an alarming tendency to paint girls as dull, diligent sheep.
And sometimes, the talk of a ”war against boys” can lapse into a victim mentality that rivals the worst excesses of radical feminism. Last month, 17-year-old Doug Anglin, a student at Milton High School, filed a federal civil rights complaint charging that his school discriminates against boys. How so? Anglin claims that rewarding students for following rules, obeying teachers’ orders, and turning in homework is unfair to boys, who ”naturally rebel.” He also wants boys to be exempt from community service, to get credit for playing sports, and to be able to take classes on a pass/fail basis. And, according to his father — a Boston attorney who wrote the lawsuit — boys’ grades should be retroactively adjusted to make up for past discrimination.
Yet the absurdity of this suit should not blind us to evidence of a chilly climate for boys in schools. Boy-bashing by girls, including T-shirts with such slogans as ”Girls rule, boys drool,” is sometimes treated as an expression of ”girl power.” In numerous surveys, both boys and girls agree that teachers generally favor girls over boys. Perhaps sensitivity training is in order to make teachers more aware of biases. Bringing more men into schools as teachers and mentors may also help.
The problem is out in the open, which is a positive step. Now, we should try to address it without pitting girls against boys, or treating either as victims.
One thing that troubles me about the current discussions of boys and their problems is the easy lapse into “boys are like this, girls are like that” rhetoric. Examples can be found, for instance, in this thread at Dr. Helen’s blog. I fully agree with Dr. Helen that it’s ridiculous to dismiss all talk of sex differences in learning as “anti-feminist,” as does feminist sociologist Michael Kimmel (SUNY). But I also cringe at comments like these, from one of the posters:
I have twin 9 year-old step-children: a girl and a boy. These children were raised in the same setting, have sat in the same classrooms, and have had virtually identical life experiences.
Yet they couldn’t be more different. The girl is calm, thoughtful, mature. She can sit still, follow instructions, and concentrate. She thinks things through before acting. She can carry on a real two-way conversation, and can make new friends and relate to them. Most importantly, she seems to have control over her impulses. The boy on the other hand can not control his impulses no matter how hard he tries, has trouble relating to others, and is constantly in trouble at school. He doesn’t think before acting. And it’s a constant source of frustration and sadness to him because he really does try!
This is a common story. It’s ridiculous that some people are still hanging on to the canard that biology doesn’t matter. Have they never met any children?
Well, I can think, without even trying too hard, of two couples I know with (fraternal) twin girls who have completely different personalities, dramatically different levels of aggressiveness, impulse control, and so on. I’m not in favor of doctrinaire unisex feminism, but going to back to putting boys and girls into little boxes labeled pink and blue is hardly preferable.
This post by Dr. Helen, about the Boston Globe article on the David Anglin lawsuit (which mentions, among other things, girls getting extra points when they “decorate their notebooks with glitter and feathers”), contains an anecdote that illustrates the dangers of fitting such issues as “rewarding creativity vs. rewarding orderliness” into a neat gender-based framework:
This reminds me of an education class I was forced to take as a requirement for my PHD degree in school/clinical psychology. The professor–a male–told us to keep a log of our activities with students or patients in my case on notebook paper and turn them in for a portion of our grade. I was out for the class when the instructions were given so got the assignment second-hand from other students. I was shocked when I received an F on the assignment–the reason? Writing outside the margins of my paper. The professor cared nothing about the content I had so carefully written out as best I could–he only cared about appearances.
And here’s another good Dr. Helen thread, with some cautionary words from Dr. Helen about the need to pay attention to individual differences as well as sex differences, and a comment from a mother of a physically active, non-stereotypical girl.
More from a Reason essay I wrote about this issue back in 2001:
“Boy partisans” can exaggerate too. … In The War Against Boys, [Christina Hoff] Sommers asserts that recent data on high school and college students clearly lead to “the conclusion that girls and young women are thriving, while boys and young men are languishing.” Yet this dramatic statement is contradicted further down the page by her own summary of Valerie Lee’s study of gender and achievement, which she lauds as “responsible and objective.” Lee reports that sex differences in school performance are “small to moderate” and “inconsistent in direction”-boys fare better in some areas, girls in others.
More boys flounder in school (and, as Sommers acknowledges, more of them reach the highest levels of excellence, from the best test scores to top rankings in prestigious law schools). But it’s important to put things in perspective. Boys are twice as likely as girls to be shunted into special education with labels that may involve a high degree of subjectivity or even bias, but we are talking about a fairly small proportion of all children. About 7 percent of boys and 3 percent of girls are classified as learning disabled, 1.5 percent of boys and 1.1 percent of girls as mentally retarded; just over 1 percent of boys and fewer than half as many girls are diagnosed with severe emotional disturbances.
Clearly, many boys are doing well; just as clearly, it’s an overstatement to say that girls in general are “thriving,” since all too often the educational system serves no one well. Twelfth-grade girls may do better than boys on reading and writing tests, but their average scores still fall short of the level that indicates real competence-the ability to understand and convey complicated information.
There’s quite a bit of exaggeration, too, in the notion of schools as a hostile environment for boys. Few would dispute that boys tend to be more physically active and less patient than girls; but these differences are far less stark than the clichés deployed in the “boy wars.” In a 1998 Department of Education study, 65 percent of boys and 78 percent of girls in kindergarten were described by teachers as usually persistent at their tasks, and 58 percent of boys and 74 percent of girls as usually attentive-a clear yet far from interplanetary gap.
(One has to wonder, too, to what extent these differences reflect reality and to what extent the teachers’ stereotyped perceptions.)
Still smaller are the differences between boys’ and girls’ views of the school climate. Surprisingly, in a 1995 survey by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, virtually the same percentages of female and male high school seniors said they liked school. When the question “Whom do teachers like more?” is posed in such a way that they must select one favored sex, kids are likely to answer “girls.” Yet when asked about their own experiences, boys are only slightly less likely than girls to say that teachers listen to them, that they call on them often and encourage them, and that discipline and grading at their school are fair.
Judith Kleinfeld, who authored the 1996 paper “The Myth That Schools Shortchange Girls,” published by the Washington, D.C.-based Women’s Freedom Network (of which I am vice president), credits Sommers with drawing attention to an often-ignored problem but wishes her argument had been more nuanced. “We used to think that the schools shortchanged girls; now the news is that schools are waging a war against boys, that girls are on top and boys have become the second sex,” says Kleinfeld. “Neither view is right. We should be sending a dual message: one, boys and girls do have characteristic problems, and we need to be aware of what they are; two, boys and girls are also individuals. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of exaggeration going on, and a lot of destructive stereotyping by both sides.”
My essay also addressed the still-debated issue of whether boys are at greater risk from “patriarchal” hypermasculine values or from creeping androgyny.
To be sure, there are educators eager to impose their egalitarian vision on other people’s children by banning toy guns from preschools, prohibiting “segregated” play at recess, or herding boys into quilting groups and prodding them to talk about how they feel. It’s difficult to tell how widespread this is outside the elite Eastern private schools from which Sommers gets several of her examples, where parents not only choose but pay big money to send their offspring. On the other hand, in many communities, boys still face strong pressure to be jocks-and the jock culture probably is more damaging to boys’ learning than the occasional quilting circle.
Not unlike the feminists, many conservatives have a vision of a monolithic, virtually unchanging “culture of manhood” that boys must join. Yet one does not have to believe that gender is only a “social construct” to know that standards of male behavior and beliefs about male nature in different times and places have varied as greatly as male dress. Two hundred years ago, it wasn’t unusual or inappropriate for men to weep at sentimental plays and for male friends to exchange letters with gushy expressions of affection.
The truth is, both efforts to produce “unisex” children and efforts to enforce traditional masculine or feminine norms are likely to warp children’s individuality. Kleinfeld had a chance to observe this when raising her own children: a girl who liked mechanical tools and had an aptitude for science, yet resisted efforts to get her interested in a scientific career and chose humanitarian work instead, and a quiet, gentle boy who was an avid reader. “We tried to get him active in sports, but we were fighting his individual nature,” says Kleinfeld. “The one time he made a touchdown in football, he was running the wrong way.”
In The War Against Boys, Sommers praises feminists who came to honor and cherish their sons’ masculine qualities, among them a pacifist-liberal writer whose son chose a military career. But would conservative champions of boyhood also praise traditionally masculine fathers who came to honor and cherish their sons’ “soft” qualities, even when those sons chose to become elementary school teachers or hairdressers?
(My review of Sommers’ The War Against Boys can be found here.)
A closing thought. How many of the problems of schoolboys today have to do with father absence?