How not to talk about Gender and Education – Is the 'Boys Crisis' in Education a Reality?
Hoff Sommers’ central assumption about boys and education is that all boys are doing poorly compared to girls (and possibly worse than ever):
“Boys in all ethnic groups and social classes are far less likely than their sisters to feel connected to school, to earn good grades, or to have high academic aspirations.”
However, the data on gender and education actually paints a very different picture. We are not dealing with an increasing number of boys staying away from higher education. Actually, quite the opposite is the case: Both men and women today enroll in universities at historically high numbers in the US, making boys more likely to attend and graduate from university than thirty years ago, as percentages of both males and females attending university as a proportion of the population have continued to grow over the past few decades. What we are seeing then, is not a decline in male educational attainment but an increase – although, admittedly, a smaller increase compared to that of female students who are enrolling in university at unparalleled numbers.
Additionally, Hoff Sommers’ claim that boys as a group – across racial and class boundaries – are falling behind by wide margins is not substantiated by the data either. True, there is a gender gap for all of these groups, but the magnitude of the respective gaps is what really makes the difference:
“[T]he gender gap between college-age middle-class white males and white females is rather small, 51% women to 49% men. But only 37% of black college students are male, and 63% female, and 45% of Hispanic students are male, compared with 55% female” (Kimmel 2010: 25).
In other words, race and class arguably matter far more than gender when it comes to educational achievement, and it is simply misleading when commentators like Hoff Sommers suggest that all boys are suffering in schools today. Rather than treating boys as a disadvantaged group, socioeconomic status must be brought into the picture:
“Financial capital; social capital; access to role models, mentors, and information, individual attitudes (especially aspirations); and prior academic performance are […] important determinants of inequalities in educational attainment. These resources, which are amassed from family, neighborhood, and school environments, explain in part ethnic and racial differences in educational attainment” (Buchmann et al. 2008: 327).
Granted, this more holistic and intersectional approach to differences in educational achievement, does not yet explain why there is a gender gap between (some groups of) girls and boys, of course. Hoff Sommers’ explanation is one of inherent distinctiveness between the genders, as she argues that “we must acknowledge the fact that boys and girls are different“ and then goes on to propose that pedagogies should take these differences into account. However, this essentialist response to gender inequalities is, of course, unable to account for the vast diversity in interest, motivation, talents and preferences within each gender category, and as such is nothing more than a reaffirmation of gender stereotypes that proposes teaching to those stereotypes as the solution.
A far more adequate explanation of why (some) boys are doing worse compared to (some) girls, especially at the tail end of educational achievement, can be had by drawing on research from the fields of feminist education studies and masculinity studies: Scholars have argued that it is the specific constructions of masculinity that boys aspire to that end up interfering with their motivation for and engagement in education. If some boys are unable to establish and proof their masculinity by being at the very top academically, they may more quickly than girls resort to alternative expressions of masculinity (emphasizing ‘coolness’, becoming the class clown, openly defying teachers) that harm their educational prospects in the long run. Moreover, the connotations of reading and studying as culturally female activities further contribute to some boys’ aversion toward schooling; this, of course, is especially salient for students from economically disadvantaged households and communities where educational engagement might directly clash with dominant constructions of working-class masculinity.
Acknowledging the interplay of race and class with our narrow conception of masculinity, as well as seriously investing in the US public education system would likely be a far more adequate response to questions of equity in education, than Hoff Sommers’ decrying of an imagined feminist conspiracy to ignore boys and her call for more vocational training for young men – which not only caters to existing gender stereotypes but also ends up proposing to prepare men for industrial jobs that might well have been exported to the global south by the time these young men complete their high school education.
Buchmann, Claudia, Thomas A. DiPrete & Anne McDaniel. 2008. Gender Inequalities in Education. Annual Review of Sociology, 34 p. 319–337.
Connel, RW. 2000. The Men and the Boys. Berkeley/ LA: University of California Press.
Francis, Becky & Christine Skelton, eds. 2005. Reassessing Gender and Achievement. Questioning Contemporary Key Debates. London: Routledge.
Kimmel, Michael. 2010. Boys and School. A Background Paper on the ‘Boy Crisis’. Stockholm.
Martino, Wayne, Martin Mills & Bob Lingard. 2007. “Getting Boys’ Education ‘Right’: The Australian Government’s Parliamentary Inquiry Report as an Exemplary Instance of Recuperative Masculinity Politics.” British Journal of Sociology of Education 28(1): 5 – 21.
Mills, Martin. 2003. “Shaping the Boys’ Agenda: The Backlash Blockbusters.” International Journal of Inclusive Education, 7(1): 57 – 73.
Weaver-Hightower, Marcus B. 2008. The Politics of Policy. Getting Boys ‘Right’. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
I’d also recommend checking out some of the great Council on Contemporary Families reports on girls, boys, and education, particularly this one: http://www.contemporaryfamilies.org/Gender-Sexuality/gender-achievement-gap-publication.html
great post, markus! thanks for sharing the real statistics about race, class, gender, and education!
Something I’ve noticed is a lot of those things talk about how ‘modern’ schooling is less good for boy brains; listing things like sitting down, rote learning, and silence. Except, school has always been like that, and it’s been getting less so in more or less the period this ‘crisis’ has occurred.
The difference I am really seeing is more school. My maternal grandfather had to board in Town to go to high school and only went because he’s very bright, my parents both only went until they were 16 and then trained on the job, but now tertiary education has become almost compulsory. It’s probably much easier to get 13 year old boys to sit still if they’re lucky to be there, rather than looking at 8 more years of this to be qualified for anything.
One factor is the lack of individualism among boys compared to girls in modern times. Whereas feminism is encouraging girls to be themselves rather than being feminine, boys are still under pressure to appear masculine. Boys still look for assurance of masculinity from others.
As a percentage, boys are falling behind, and it will get worse. Many colleges are trying now to hold the enrollments to 60 percent Female and 40 percent Male. This will become more difficult over time as there will be fewer Males to feel the classrooms.
I do not feel however feminism is to blame. I do see it as the belief girls should be protected and boys to be trained with more aggressive treatment to become little soldiers or tough. The information age now requires more correct treatment to create lower layers of mental frictions (lower average stress) for more ease of learning and more mental energy for learning new things such as academics; more social vocabulary; and lower muscle tension to develop writing skills. To compete more evenly with girls, boys also need as much or close to the same mental/emotional/social/verbal interaction, support, knowledge, and skills over time. The more aggressive treatment given boys is creating more social/emotional distance also that is creating more distrust, more preparation for defense; and in turn, with less support, lags in maturity. Unlike girls who are given love/honor for being girls; boy must qualify for such love/honor only through some achievement, status, or image. Those who do not measure up in some societal expected manner are given the stick of discipline or ridicule to prod them along. This sets many Males already deprived of proper support to use risk taking, video games, or sports to fill their needs for self-worth. We must not argue whether Males are falling behind. We should be looking to see if there variables/tools we can use to help all students improve their lives.