Boys – Again

The question of male achievement in schooling is not new – and neither is the concern about it. A friend recently sent me a link to a firebrand article by Linda Laframboise from 1996.

The tone is unnecessarily incendiary, perhaps, and lots of statisticians could argue that the within-group differences in boys’ performance indicate that gender is not to blame. But I include this here because as a teacher of boys some of it resonates well:

Roll back the red carpet for boys
How come when girls fail it’s society’s doing, but when boys fail it’s their fault?
The Globe and Mail
7 March 1998, p. D6
Linda Laframboise
Every now and again, in random bits and pieces, we run up against the fact that being male isn’t the red-carpet experience much of recent feminism would have us believe.
Young males are more likely to be physically abused by their parents, to drop out of school, and to face unemployment than their female counterparts. Between the ages of 15 and 24, they take their own lives five times more frequently. As adults, males are more likely to be homeless, more prone to alcohol and gambling addictions, twice as likely to be robbed or murdered, nine times more likely to be killed in an occupational accident, and go to their graves six years earlier (on average) than their sisters.
Yet so attached are we to the view that the patriarchy has designed the world for the benefit of males that these truths fail to sink in. Although headlines would scream and alarm bells would ring if the opposite were the case, inequality isn’t an important social issue when males are being shortchanged.
Talk about youth suicide, for instance, and you’ll be informed that what really deserves attention is not the appalling number of dead male bodies, but the fact that girls say they attempt suicide more often than do boys.
The latest example of this “who cares? they’re only guys” mentality are reports that girls are outperforming boys in school. In 1996, six out of ten high-school honours graduates in Ontario and British Columbia were female.
Even though girls were besting boys a decade earlier (in 1986, 53 per cent of Ontario honours grads and 57 of those in BC were girls), the 1990s have been replete with media commentary telling us it’s girls who merit our concern. In 1994, Myra and David Sadker’s book, Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls, appeared. A year later, Michele Landsberg wrote a column in The Toronto Star titled “School sexism so routine it’s almost invisible.” A news story, also inThe Star, about the higher-than-average Montreal drop-out rate implied we should be concerned about this phenomenon partly because “45 per cent of dropouts are young women.” Despite being in the majority, the boys weren’t worth mentioning.
When girls do worse in maths and science, when they don’t sign up for skilled trades or study engineering, we say its the system’s fault. Their parents aren’t encouraging them sufficiently, the schools are male-oriented and unwelcoming, the boys are harassing them, and the larger society is sending them traditional role-model messages.
When boys do poorly, it’s their own fault. Even though they’re children, all the responsibility gets loaded directly onto their meager shoulders. In a recent Globe and Mail article (“Where the Boys Aren’t: at the top of the class” – Feb. 26), educators tell the media that “too many boys don’t seem to be even trying,” and blame “a boy culture that celebrates bravado, lassitude and stupidity.” Rather than ask boys for their input, the reporter instead interviewed girls who criticized the boys’ study habits.
The fact that masculinity and intellectualism have always been an uneasy fit (football players get dates, bookworms don’t) doesn’t even make it into the conversation.
The idea that boys may be confused about whether or not they should excel, since feminism has drawn a straight line between female oppression and male achievement, isn’t discussed.
The fact that elementary schools are dominated by female teachers who scold and punish boys more frequently than they do girls, and that boys suffer from more learning disabilities, isn’t mentioned.
The notion that educators, parents, and governments have spent the past 15 years ignoring boys, so it’s little wonder that they themselves have become complacent about their performance isn’t considered.
Girls are victims of circumstance and boys are masters of their own fate. Girls are moulded and manipulated by social pressures; boys are immune to the world around them and make conscious choices. Girls get to blame everyone but themselves; everyone gets to blame boys.
Wasn’t feminism supposed to be about abolishing double standards?

Boys Will be Boys (?)

A cartoon by Anthony Jenkins of the Globe (

Imagine, if you will, a group of individuals in our society who present with the following characteristics.  Compared with their peers:

– they are about half as likely to go to university;
– within the 25-34 age group, they possess almost 24 per cent fewer university degrees;
– they are ineligible to apply to hundreds of Canadian scholarships;
– once in post secondary education, they are 11 per cent less likely to complete a college program, and are 18 per cent less likely to complete a university;
– they are 32 per cent less likely to make the honour role in school;
– and they are 50 per cent more likely to have to repeat a grade.

(Source: Globe and Mail)

You might rightly assume that we could add this segment of our population to the groups we have labelled in crisis; even thought it is a big list, there must be room for one more.  But these are boys we’re talking about, “just boys,” and old ideas about male power are remarkably resilient to data.

The Globe and Mail is currently doing a six-part series on the “Failing boys and the powder keg of sexual politics.”  I commend them on it, even if I am a little skeptical of the possibility of any groundswell of support for their ideas.

The obvious part of the story is a recognition of a fact: boys are failing in school.  Those statistics above should be alarming to anyone – we all live in the same society and share an interest in the success of all society’s members.

If we accept the initial premise, boys aren’t succeeding, it is equally obvious where the inquiry goes next: why, then?  The Globe presents several reasons, all of which probably have some merit: the male obsession with video games; the so-called boy code, according Kate Hammer of the Globe, “An antiquated idea of masculinity that paints appearing weak or too keen or asking for help as feminine”; the feminization of education; developmental differences in the brain; and a lack of suitable role models.  (Note the similarity between these and the commonly-cited reasons for lower performance of black students in schools.)

Of course, not all accept these premises.  “It’s hard to argue that boys are being short-changed. Even with the generation difference, it’s very doubtful that today’s girls will be ascending into positions of power and today’s boys will be in a minority in business and politics,” said Paula Bourne, head of women’s studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.  (So far as I can tell, OISE does not have a department of men’s studies.)

This argument, skeptical towards the struggles of boys, tends to go like this:
– The powerful and rich are men
– All boys will grow up to be men
– Therefore, all boys will grow up to be powerful and rich.

Questionable logic, to be sure: it is true only if you assume all boys grow up to be rich men.  As Susan Faludi points out in her book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, just because 90 per cent of CEOs are men doesn’t mean 90 percent of men are CEOs.  This is a key – perhaps the key – element in the quiet discrimination against boys: a confusion of numbers, proportion, and causality.  The average man does not participate in the success of male captains of industry any more than the average woman does.  The average boy deserves as much helpful worry and thoughtful concern as the average girl.

On earning potential?  Many point out that Canadian men still earn more than women on average.  True; though, of course, it is hard to tease out of that statistic voluntary reduction in earnings taken on by women who choose to raise families (in addition to those pressured into it caregiving by the patriarchy).  But earnings are a backward-looking indicator: the highest earners tend to be middle-aged or older, those who went to school in the 1970s and 1980s, when the gender disparity in schools was the opposite of today.  It is highly unlikely that, notwithstading years out of the workforce off for caregiving, women will earn less than men for that much longer.  (Even if, up until now, it has been a conspiracy, there will be too few professional men to continue it).

I once worked in an office where I was told that I was “Pretty smart – for a man.”  I was recently in a girls school taking to a teacher-administrator who smilingly opined (in response to an admittedly-troubled male educator), “That’s why you don’t hire men.”  I dealt with it by getting a new job and changing the subject, respectively.  And as a man, sharing these stories seems either like whining or worse – misogyny, because given the history of gender relations in western civilization, I had it coming.

And boo hoo, I suppose; my stories pale in comparison to many stories told by women of sexist bosses.  But equality isn’t a zero sum proposition; any one man’s stories of discrimination do not detract from those of any other group.  We all deserve to be free from discrimination, humiliation, and condescension.  And neither does the often ugly history of our planet justify contempt for boys; we shouldn’t treat our boys as deserving of punishment for a crime they didn’t commit.

Either we want equality or we do not.  If we are serious about it, male students (and teachers) need to be sent a message that they are valued, cherished, and respected – for who they are, including their maleness, without the sneering jealousies aimed at a fraction of men who earn large salaries, or historical arguments about the way things used to be, which – though sad and true – do not justify the unfairness towards boys in 2010. I believe in boys, not because I was one, but for no more complicated a reason than they are deserving of it.