There’s much angst these days about boys falling behind girls in educational achievement or dropping out of school, altogether so David Brooks has offered a solution. He would reconstitute required reading lists to keep boys’ eyes on the page. As he sees it, girls and boys will have separate syllabi. Girls will be spared Hemingway or Twain. Boys will escape the agony of reading Jane Austen.
Argh! This is a lose-lose proposition, which ignores that fact that we already have a gendered apartheid of reading material at the lower levels. It’s practiced by publishers, too. It’s one reason—my theory—why so many men and boys have so little regard for women as actors, doers, achievers.
From grade school up, girls are routinely expected to read books with males as heros, but boys are not asked to contort themselves, even in imagination, so as to identify with girls (or women) as strong central characters. The psychology is universal. Females, to many men and boys, are not just incomprehensibly different (this is so old!), but inferior. A superior caste seldom bothers to delve into the psychology of an inferior caste, which in the long run results in revolutions. In the short run, meanwhile, American book publishers maximize profits by putting out lots of books about boys (which girls will read) while neglecting books about girls (which boys won’t).
The corollary is obvious: the weak have to understand the powerful. Once women had to manipulate “male psychology” in order to survive. Now they need to psych out men in order to break through this or that glass ceiling. Women may have as little respect for males (the presently acculturated version) as men may have for (any) women, but they must understand this strange animal or they will be in trouble.
David Brooks claims he formulated his solution to the “boy crisis” on the basis of a poll conducted by “researchers in Britain” who supposedly asked 900 “distinguished” men and women to name their “favorite novels.” Result: two very different lists. Since Brooks fails to provide the name of the research institution, we have no way to check on the biases of the investigators, the adequacy of the study’s design and the degree to which Brooks himself has used the material responsibly. And he has failed to take note of that systemic problem—in the US, at least: boys are actually taught not to appreciate books that center on females, so why should they as adults appreciate Middlemarch, which (please note!) is not about “relationships” but about the miserable consequences of stunted opportunities for intelligent women!
Judith Warner, responding to Brooks, asks “What Boy Crisis?” She is, moreover, respectful of readers, leading us to a June 2006 study conducted by Sara Mead under the auspices of the non-profit nonpartisan Education Sector: The Truth about Boys and Girls. This study analyzes government educational statistics over the past 40 years and discovers that, contrary to all the fears about boys possibly ill-served by “feminized” school systems,
...with a few exceptions, American boys are scoring higher and achieving more than they ever have before. But girls have just improved their performance on some measures even faster. As a result, girls have narrowed or even closed some academic gaps that previously favored boys, while other long-standing gaps that favored girls have widened, leading to the belief that boys are falling behind.
There’s no doubt that some groups of boys—particularly Hispanic and black boys and boys from low-income homes—are in real trouble. But the predominant issues for them are race and class, not gender. Closing racial and economic gaps would help poor and minority boys more than closing gender gaps, and focusing on gender gaps may distract attention from the bigger problems facing these youngsters.
The hysteria about boys is partly a matter of perspective. While most of society has finally embraced the idea of equality for women, the idea that women might actually surpass men in some areas (even as they remain behind in others) seems hard for many people to swallow.
In addition, a dizzying array of so-called experts have seized on the boy crisis as a way to draw attention to their pet educational, cultural, or ideological issues. Some says that contemporary classrooms are too structured, suppressing boys’ energetic natures and tendency to physical expression; others contend that boys need more structure and discipline in school. Some blame “misguided feminism” for boys’ difficulties, while others argue that “myths” of masculinity have a crippling impact on boys. Many of these theories have superficially plausible rationales that make them appealing to some parents, educators and policymakers. But the evidence suggests that many of these ideas come up short.
This debate benefits neither boys nor girls, while distracting attention from more serious educational problems—such as large racial and economic achievement gaps—and practical ways to help both boys and girls succeed in school.
Interestingly enough, the sole “expert” cited by David Brooks is Leonard Sax, author of Why Gender Matters. Sax is one of the writers who, according to Sara Mead, uses the “boy crisis” to support pre-existing agendas.
The boy crisis offers an attractive way for conservative pundits to get in some knocks against feminism and progressive education and also provides another argument for educational policies—such as stricter discipline, more traditional curriculum, increased testing and competition, and single-sex schooling—that conservatives have long supported.Brooks, Sax and others worry that boys are physiologically and mentally unsuited to sitting in class, working cooperatively (what else is a team?) and acquiring verbal skills, all of which, supposedly, come naturally only to girls. Schools must be designed according to different principles, if boys are to be kept from dropping out. Unfortunately for Brooks et. al., the behavior characteristic of this “girlie” type of schooling is what allows anyone to succeed in the modern world. If boys aren’t able to study, collaborate and express themselves effectively, they will have to relinquish control of all the commanding heights of the entire society to women (science, too, Larry Summers notwithstanding), which isn’t going to happen because well motivated boys have no more trouble than healthy, equally active girls in applying themselves to their studies.
So we come back to sociology. There is a serious problem. It affects boys from black, Hispanic and lower-income homes more than boys from white middle- or upper-middle class homes. As Sara Mead demonstrates, boys with fathers, grandfathers and uncles who are lawyers or doctors or managers are doing quite well in school, thank you very much. Their brains aren’t wired differently. It has to do with role models, with expectations.
Where are the role models for boys from under-privileged homes? Who are the successful male figures featured in the mass media? What’s the measure of their success? No mystery here. How much formal schooling is needed to excel in professional sports or to become a pop musician or singer? So what’s the point of going to school, doing homework, delaying gratification, if there’s no one worth emulation who succeeded by reading history and doing quadratic equations? For that matter, is anyone who isn’t making big bucks currently held up as a stellar role model? Most scientists don’t get rich. Teachers certainly don’t. Social workers get no serious respect. And then there’s the problem of values. Who’s to emulate in any field of endeavor? Politicians and businessmen are increasingly seen as mired in corruption. Soldiers are committing atrocities in Iraq. Presidents are lying. It seems, then, that this society has a grave motivation problem that hasn't solely to do with whether the circuits in the male brain differ radically from those in the female brain.
Meanwhile, not so long ago girls lacked role models for success outside of traditional roles. No problem! History was scoured for women who had achieved and been forgotten or under-celebrated. It turned out that the past was replete with women of achievement: artists, composers, writers, sovereigns, women who kept the plantation or the shop going quite profitably while husbands went away to war. Abigail Adams wasn’t just a wife anymore. She was a canny sociologist. Conclusion: the absence of women at the top was clearly a structural problem, not an indication of woman’s inability to perform with excellence in any field of human endeavor. These days girls know they can get somewhere if they apply themselves—and they do.
Meanwhile, ironically, some feminists carp that female success doesn’t look much different from male success. So much for the argument that women are innately so different from men that societies governed by women will be entirely different from those we’ve suffered under since the end of divine matriarchy. These disappointed feminists blame Iron Ladies on the persistence of patriarchy. I attribute their performance to the basic needs of governance. Male proponents of gender apartheid might keep this in mind.
Some efforts to study how males and females differ physiologically have been beneficial. We are getting more effective treatment for female heart patients, for instance. But the truth is that there’s very little genetic difference between humans and apes—or even between humans and mice. The differences between boys and girls, who really do belong to the same species, are far less significant. Even those who argue for segregated educational institutions admit that males and females differ only on the extremes of any continuum where difference in performance has been found. That being the case, surely we can devise a common curriculum for our offspring so that they can, as adults, also share in the wise governance of human society.
And may I suggest that the shared literature curriculum not only include works by the great female and the great male western writers. It should also include material from other cultures. Every kid needs to read Austen and Hemingway. And Tagore. And Soyinka. And Hafiz....