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?