Tag Archives: boys

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?

Treasure Island, Buried

As some may remember from the distant past of this blog, I set out to actually read a whole e-book from start to finish on Book Glutton, all this in honor of read a book month, or read an e-book month, or some other kind of month. Given that most Americans don’t even read one book a year, e or otherwise, I am so proud of myself for managing to fulfill my quota in a mere three weeks. Or so. Anyway, I finished Treasure Island about a couple of weeks ago, but have been too swamped with work (and my kids soccer games) to collect any thoughts. And, of course by now, given that I am uncomfortably close to my fiftieth birthday, I have actually forgotten most of the experience. So the comments that follow are no doubt not anywhere nearly an accurate reflection of my experiences but more a kind of fiction of what I construe could have happened in my reading experience. Pierre Bayard and Roland Barthes would be so proud.

First Treasure Island itself. What a romp! One consequence of being an academic is that works in my specialization I am always reading as an academic. Which probably means dully and ponderously. So when I read for pleasure…well, I never really do read for pleasure. But let’s just say that in order to re-activate the pleasure zones in my reading brain, I often have to get far away from stuff I have to teach or write about in my official capacities.

Treasure Island is surely a boys book in a certain sense of that word. For all the sturm and drang about about the dominance of masculine narratives in the canon, it’s worth saying that boys books aren’t much appreciated as boys books per se. They have to first be turned in to “LITERATURE.” That is, something ponderous and masculine rather than, well, rompish. If “rompish” even qualifies as a term of analysis. And much of what we talk about as literature–things like The Great Gatsby as exhibit A; things like The Scarlet Letter as exhibit B–are really chick flicks dressed up to go out on the town. No wonder boys don’t read.

But then there are boys books. Romps that lose their fun in becoming literature, or which are ignored because they seem resistant to literary seriousness. Huckleberry Finn used to be sold as a boys book, in fact, though now it is banned from high schools. For my money Melville’s most readable works are Typee, Omoo, and Redburn. Works written for adolescent boys, and adolescent men, who were looking for a little tittilation in thinking about naked polynesian breasts. Let’s be truthful folks. How many of us really truly loved Moby Dick. Confession of the week. I can’t bring myself to finish Pierre. And I did my master’s exams on Melville. I think I read the Cliff’s notes. Perhaps if either book did more to foreground Polynesian breasts I would get more interested.

In any case, Treasure Island, falls into the category of a boys book so stereotypical that we now can hardly feel it as anything but predictable. The boy in search of a father since he’s lost his own. And finding fathers in all the wrong places, especially among barely disguised pirates who everyone and their mother knows are pirates except apparently Jim Hawkins himself.

I was struck in reading it by how much Jim is the characteristic “good boy.” The loyal son to his mother. Although the novel is often described as a coming of age story, there’s a peculiar sense in which jim is already aged. He is already formed as the good man that he will become, protector of his mother becomes protector of his friends and ultimately, even, the protector of his erstwhile enemy, Long John Silver.

In other words, Jim is already his own father, a boy seeking for a father he doesn’t really need or want. Thus, explaining Jim’s constant penchant for running off for no good reason, whether in to the apple barrel or jumping ship to gain the Island ahead of the others, or stealing the ship out from under the noses of the pirates themselves. Jim is a boy who doesn’t need a father because he is a father already, the one who can save those even whom he despises. Sprung whole and righteous from his own loins. (This is, of course, also a description of Milton’s Satan, but I won’t press the point).

For my money, this makes Treasure Island more of an adventure story than a coming of age story or bildungsroman. Jim is already who he is or will become. He is threatened by evil, but he is not tempted by it. Huckleberry Finn could worry about whether he is going to hell, and he could play his pranks on the slave Jim on the raft for his own selfish ends and pleasures, but Jim Hawkins always chooses the good and we always know he will. And perhaps more importantly, he always knows he will. Thus the story is not about whether Jim will be good and will grow as a human being–he doesn’t grow at all. It is more about whether goodness will out. Does goodness pay off in the end? Is goodness the treasure that we can have without seeking.?Will goodness save our own necks from the noose, and perhaps the necks of Long John Silver as well?

Well Stevenson seemed to think so. I’m tempted to say it’s a vapid vision of the world, where the mutineers of the world exist not to tell me that I too might be one, but as foils for my own moral self-display. Nevertheless, this criticism is awfully literary and ponderous. So I’ll stop before I lose sight of the fact that I actually loved reading it.

Of course, I also weep when watching Brian’s Song. What does this prove?

More later about the actual experience of reading on book glutton.