Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Boy Crisis in Education, Part 1

A funny thing happened while I was researching the widely-bemoaned "boy crisis" in education. I discovered that it may not exist, or that if it exists, it has been vastly overblown. Not only that, I uncovered the rather surprising fact–though it shouldn't be surprising, should it?–that there is still a girl crisis in education, one that has been overshadowed in recent years by the attention paid to the possibly spurious boy crisis.

The current iteration of the story of boys' struggles in a"feminized" school system dates back to the late nineties, and roughly coincides with the publication of Michael Gurian's influential book, The Wonder of Boys. In the book, Gurian details the ways in which the new myths of masculinity, those derived from feminist debunking of the old myths, have damaged boys' self-esteem and adversely affected their social and economic prospects in post-industrial societies. Gurian was one of the first authors to marshal the new "brain science" to bolster his argument that boys and girls are innately different and should be parented and taught accordingly. Since the publication of Gurian's clarion call to action, many other authors, educators and journalists have added their voices to what amounts to a collective lament over the performance and status of boys in contemporary schools. Among the most influential of these authors are single-sex schooling advocate Leonard Sax, and Christina Hoff Sommers, a revised edition of whose book, The War Against Boys (2000), will be released this spring.

So what, according to these authors, does the boy crisis consist of? The first thing to note is that it rests upon an essentialist understanding of gender, that is, on a collapsing of the distinction that psychologists and sociologists have drawn between biological sex on the one hand, and cultural manifestations of masculinity and femininity–gender–on the other. (A more recent book on the subject by Simon Baron-Cohen, is tellingly entitled The Essential Difference.) The feminist contention that, to paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir, feminine and masculine are made not born has, according to the boy-crisis proponents, met its Waterloo in the new brain science, which shows that girls and boys are neurobiologically from different planets. (Venus and Mars, one assumes.)

The brain research that writers such as Gurian et al. adduce to support their message of innate differences between boys and girls is highly complex; much of it has been debunked or disproved by subsequent studies, and almost none of it supports the extrapolations made by non-scientists writing for popular audiences, such as Gurian, Hoff Sommers, and Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain and The Male BrainMore on that later. For now, here in rough outline is what, for convenience sake, I'll call the "difference argument": male and female fetuses are exposed to differing amounts of the hormone testosterone in the womb, which leads to structural differences in the brain, which in turn lead to feminine and masculine behaviour in girls and boys. Brain science, then, according to this view, proves that our understanding of what is natural is not culturally determined as feminists would have us believe. On the contrary:

Culture has always been very much the communal refinement of biology, the practical expression of nature. Even our complex network of socializing influences are created as outgrowths of biological imperatives. We create sports structures for boys, boys create gangs for themselves, more boys go into science than girls, boys communicate through certain male-specific verbal patterns–the list of boy-specific "cultural" patterns is very long, and few, including male violence, do not begin in brain and hormonal biology. (Gurian, The Wonder of Boys, p. 28)

The post-feminist denial of this uni-directional relationship between nature and nurture has, according to Gurian and other proponents of hard-wired gender difference, led to a widespread suppression of boys' natural instincts and behaviour, and nowhere so flagrantly than in the feminized, "verbally-drenched" environment of schools.

So, the second part of the boy crisis consists of an indictment of modern schooling as contrary to boys' nature. In school, boys must sit still in rows rather than move around constantly as is their natural wont; they must listen to and respect female teachers rather than the absent male role models they naturally crave; they must express themselves verbally rather than spatially; they must work collaboratively rather than competitively; they must suppress their natural aggression, and so on. All of this, according to the boy crisis rhetoric, comes naturally to girls, but is crushing to boys, and has led to their educational demise, as evidenced by their worsening results on standardized tests, by dropout rates which surpass those of girls, and by their diminished presence on university campuses.

There's no denying that it's a depressing story, one capable of generating reams of attention-grabbing copy, but the problem is that it is for the most part just that: a story.

Next: The Boy Crisis in Education, Part 2: Science Fact and Fiction


  1. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Assume that males and females have a certain essence (x and y, respectively). Structure your society around that premise and socialize males and females as if they have that essence. Result: males and females tend to act like x and y; the belief that males and females have essence x and y has been confirmed and differential treatment is "justified". Utter tosh.

  2. I agree. And that's part of what I'm going to look at in the second section of the post. Socialization is also capable of affecting the brain itself, which makes the self-fulfilling prophecy even more likely.

  3. This article is just science denialism. If boys and girls do not have differences in learning styles why did China and Australia erase their gender gap by treating it as such? Why was an American superintendent able to close the gender gap in one year by treating it as a biological difference?