Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Real Boy Crisis

For years, news headlines have blared reports that American boys are “falling behind” their female peers in school. Last week, New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks sounded the “boy crisis” alarm once again. In his latest call-to-arms, Mr. Brooks attributes the widely reported “decline in male performance” to a one-size-fits-all school culture that systematically disadvantages boys. In one of the more outlandish statements I’ve read in a while, Mr. Brooks declares:
 "The education system has become culturally cohesive, rewarding and encouraging a certain sort of person: one who is nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious." 
Nurturing? Did he say nurturing? When was the last time you heard of a student receiving a school commendation for being…nurturing? Mr. Brooks, why don’t you drop the cultural code words and just come out and say it—in your opinion, the “certain sort of person” schools favor is…girls.

Mr. Brooks thinks we should be ashamed of an educational system that forces boys to meet a feminized ideal of the good student. I say shame on Mr. Brooks for using the plight of American schoolboys as an excuse to lob another grenade in the gender wars. I will give him this, though: the fact that so many boys are failing to live up to their full potential at school is worth getting riled up about. But that’s where we part company. The way I see it, the real problem isn’t that schools don’t make make room for “boys to be boys.” The real problem is a culture that socializes boys into an ideal of masculinity that sets them up to fail, in school and in life.

If we as a nation really care about the future of our boys, it’s high time to take a good, hard look at the messages we’re sending our kids about what it means to be a man. But most “boy crisis” commentators choose to look the other way—even when the problem is staring them in the face. Mr. Brooks is a prime example. He observes that today’s typical boy regards school as a place for “wimps” and “softies.” But given the blatantly gendered nature of these put-downs (in contrast, say, to less overtly effeminizing epithets like “loser” or “nerd”), one might expect Mr. Brooks to at least consider the possibility that what turns boys off to school isn’t school itself, but rather a culture of masculinity that encourages boys to dismiss school as a hopelessly girly affair. He doesn’t. Instead he urges schools to hire
“…not just teachers who celebrate cooperation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honor environmental virtues, but teachers who honor military virtues; not just curriculums that teach how to share, but curriculums that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp.” 
But why revert to old-school thinking when what our boys really need is to own up to their own potential as young learners and future leaders?

Ask yourself: Can we do more to help our boys learn socially appropriate ways to express anger, frustration, and fear? Can we teach our boys that there is no shame in loving to read, draw, and write poetry? Can we as a society change our thinking about what it means to be a real man?

The remarkable changes brought about by feminism in our time convinces me we can. It wasn’t so long ago that young women were taught that fulfillment could be found only as wives and mothers. Today’s girls are much more likely to believe “the sky’s the limit” when it comes to pursuing their dreams. To be sure, there is still a great deal more work to be done on the gender equity front for girls. But in the span of a few generations, we’ve come a remarkably long way (and no, you may not call me "baby.")

Now it’s time to set our sights on liberating our boys too from an ideal of manhood that really hasn’t had much of an update since our caveman days. I’m not sure America is ready to embrace feminism as a model for teaching boys to become men, but as they say, a girl can dream.


  1. LOVE this response! I read that article as well and was surprised at the characterizations regarding schooling.

    Also, I can assure you (as a former teacher and current researcher in education) that there is no shortage of *competition* in US schools these days, thanks in large part to No Child Left Behind. The current policies in public schools place an extreme overemphasis on the importance of performance on standardized tests, and classrooms focused on test prep typically adopt a focus on right answers and besting others. Color-coded student ID cards based on prior test scores are not unheard of (or even that uncommon), and students are quite often awarded school privileges based on their scores. I think it is quite a stretch to characterize these kinds of environments as ones that "celebrate cooperation" and work like "friendship circles."

    Maybe Mr. Brooks should spend some more time in the classroom doing his own "homework" before making such sweeping -- and inaccurate -- generalizations.


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