The Boy Problem

Boys and their problems may be the enduring cultural theme in what used to be called the west. Think Oedipus, Cain and Abel, Hamlet, or Huckleberry Finn. All on some level about disfunctional “boys” or half-men trying to function in a disfunctional world. Because the boy problem in education reflects the emotional contours of that story, we may be tempted to treat it as an enduring fiction rather than a broad issue of serious social concern as we really ought to do.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the problem of boys and reading. I’ve also had some longstanding concern about the particular problem of engaging boys in the learning process. Thus it was with some interest that I read This piece from Inside Higher Ed on the latest social science regarding the problem of boys

The working paper, which uses data from the U.S. Census and the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth, also notes a striking and substantial difference between the sexes in educational attainment, with women outpacing men in every demographic group. The largest gap between men and women in completing college is at the highest economic range, with women at a 13-percentage-point advantage over their male counterparts.

“It was surprising to us to find the female advantage is the largest among the highest quartile,” said Susan Dynarski, a co-author of the study and associate professor of public policy and of education at the University of Michigan. “When you hear about ‘the boy problem,’ you tend to hear about low-income groups.”

This last reflects my own intrigue as well. The disparate statistics are often dismissed as a function of class or racial differences with white boys from upper and middle income brackets being largely unaffected. Thus the disparity can be dismissed as being gender based in any crucial way. This study while hardly definitive, calls that in to question.

When the gender specific elements are not dismissed, it seems to me that they are very often interpreted in quasi-Victorian terms that either assume boys as a class are morally inferior–I.e. they are lazy and don’t want to work hard–or that assume boys are genetically inferior–I.e. boys are not wired in a way that encourages success in our collaborative information based culture.

Both these arguments–to be sure, there are other arguments– strike me as deeply problematic. Imagine if we applied the same terms to women or to race, assuming that failure to perform was the result of moral or genetic flaws rather the structure of social attitudes toward education or the social assumptions embedded within the educational process. additionally, and ironically, I think this tendency to blame boys for their problems is structured along typically masculinity lines. That is, in the stories of Oedipus and the others I mention above, boys are judged by their success or failure in overcoming their disfunction. They are judged–usually as to whether they are worthy of becoming men–by whether they individually overcome the corruption of the world around them (Huckleberry Finn) or overcome the cowardice within (Hamlet) or by whether they overcome the temptations to pride (Cain). But the point is, finally that they are judged. To be a boy is to be judged worthy or unworthy, however vague and indistinct the standards by which that worth is determined.

What would happen, I wonder, if we stopped judging boys and instead turned our eyes on a society and an educational system that facilitates their failure?

2 thoughts on “The Boy Problem

  1. Jenny Zimmerman

    Dr. Powers, I really like this post. I don’t know if I have anything worth saying, any answers to offer really, but I will offer a brief anecdote. A boy in my homeroom came from Romania. Incredibly intelligent, he caught up with the coursework in a year and overcame his British counterparts in the second year. He missed his Romanian friends, made few friends in England, and was generally despondent, withdrawn and obviously incredibly unhappy.

    In 10th grade, he started skipping school to make his parents take him back to Romania. When that didn’t work, he stole his mom’s credit card, bought a flight online, got to the airport by train and was in Romania (claiming to be at his friend’s for the weekend). His mom called me crying… “what can I do?”

    I don’t have any children, but the only advice I could give to her was to never give up on him because you love him. When he came back, I did tell him how much his mom loved him, because, to steal a line from “Whip it”… if my kid ever ran away from me, “I’d break his legs so he could never do it again.”

    He’s on his way to a private 6th form with top marks, but I know he’s probably the exception and not the rule in this “problem” of boys… sigh.

    1. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

      The ways in which these kinds of things are narrated is deeply conflicted, in my view anyway. On the one hand, of course, I’m sure that if we looked at performance in the upper-income bracket we’d discover that students there on the whole, including male students, are outperforming their peers in lower-income brackets. Thus the tendency is to say it’s an income problem, and in some sense it is. But if there’s a 13% gap even at the highest income bracket, this speaks to something that is not solved by reducing income inequality or by reducing racial bias and ethnocentrism (even though it is possible that steps take to address those social issues would have a derivative effect of improving the performance of males across the spectrum). If even at the highest levels of income we have boys underperforming in comparison to girls at a rate of roughly 56% to 44%, we ought to be asking what it is about our pedagogies, curricula, and/or social structures that perpetuates that gap rather than blaming 15,16, and 17 year olds for an educational and social system they’ve done very little to create and have had very little opportunity to change.


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