April 20, 2015

The "Boy Problem" of the Twenty-first Century

Tigonzales Angel Gonzales head shotBy Teresa Irene Gonzales and Angel Rubiel Gonzalez

Gonzalez holds a Ph.D. in Education from UC Berkeley and is currently a social studies teacher in New York City

In 2013, Christina Hoff Sommers wrote an op-ed for the New York Times which discussed the growing educational gap between boys and girls within the U.S. Sommers blames much of this gap on what she terms “misguided policies” that perpetuate an educational gender inequity that favors girls over boys. In order to create more boy-friendly classrooms, Sommers advocates for increased play time (recess), single-sex classrooms, and male teachers.

In order to support her point, Sommers cites a Journal of Human Resources study that indicates American boys between the ages of five and ten consistently receive lower course grades than their standardized test scores could predict due to behavioral differences between boys and girls. The study found that teachers implicitly reward characteristics such as attentiveness, persistence, an eagerness to learn, and the ability to work independently, all skills that the researchers and Sommers claim girls obtain earlier in life.

Sommers’ piece in the Times elicited a numbers of responses. One highlighted the importance of creating schools and classrooms that promote student individuality and high expectations rather than one that reinforced gender stereotypes; another indicated the importance of play for both boys and girls.

Two years later, Sean Kullman wrote another New York Times op-ed, claiming that K-12 education is still geared towards girls and does not provide an adequate educational experience for American boys. The author goes on to advocate for an educational system that advances gender equality for boys and girls.

A call for gender equity within educational institutions seems like a noble stance. However, pieces such as Sommers’ and Kullman’s draw on essentialist understandings of gender that solely take into consideration one’s biology. According to the essentialist perspective, boys act a certain way and girls act another way because they are allegedly born with particular traits.  These types of arguments inherently scapegoat advances made by women (by claiming that women succeed due to the feminization of the classroom) as the reason why American boys lag behind. Furthermore, blaming gender stereotypes for problems with schools invites analyses and interventions that ignore larger structural causes that might explain achievement gaps, such as zero-tolerance disciplinary policies and standardized testing.

Given this debate, we wondered how ideas of American “manhood” might also influence the development and education of boys? Drawing from gender studies we know that gender is a social act; a performance of a culture’s idealized notions of femininity and masculinity. We also know that gender is not natural, instead it operates as a social institution with a set of norms organized to uphold a certain basic societal value.

In Angel’s experiences as a researcher and educator, he’s found that boys are often paralyzed by the fear and anxiety of allowing others to see them as weak or needy, which then affects their ability to fully take advantage of resources. Sociologists Michael Kimmel and Raewyn Connell have argued that hegemonic masculinity–the set of gender practices and relations that legitimate the dominant status of men–are in fact steeped in an anxiety of failing to perform manhood for other men. This fear of other men and not women is often responsible for a harmful socialization process that is marked by shame and trauma. Might this performance of (and ascription to) hegemonic masculinity also frame the ways that boys learn? How boys ask for help with assignments? How boys interact with each other and their teacher in the classroom?

In addition to an essentialist understanding of gender, arguments such as those made by Sommers and Kullman regarding the “crisis” of boys fail to acknowledge the challenges that Black girls encounter in the classroom. According to a recent report released by the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies and the African American Policy Forum titled Black Girls MatterBlack girls are suspended at six times more the rate than their white counterparts. Are Black girls then embodying more masculine behaviors? Or is something else going on?

The notion that there is a “boy crisis” in U.S. education is not new. In fact, there were similar claims made of “boy problems” at the turn of the twentieth century when European immigrant boys were seen as one of the many threats of a rapidly industrializing society. These calls to alarm are cyclical and reactionary, and do little towards understanding how gender norms contribute to social policies and inequities, such as educational gaps.

Instead of blaming high suspension rates, anxiety, stress, disengagement, and low grades on “reverse sexism” a more fruitful start is to search for a common denominator. How might we engage the multiple ways in which different children learn without depending on essentialist identities?



I hope we can see we are not just seeing fears of failing but a treatment from infancy that has created very weak positions for academics which accumulate to create real lags in academics over time. This then elicits much more ridicule and discipline from parents, teachers, and peers (support is not an option for fear of coddling Males). This then leads to stagnancy and less effort and more fear of failing.
The problem is more complex than school curriculum or boy chemistry. We need to stop looking at where boys are in life, character, and behavior and begin looking at how boys are treated from infancy very differently from us as girls. We need to see how the more aggressive treatment they are given from infancy by parents, teachers, peers is creating more problems and less than correct behavior or care for authority and school.
To understand this, "we must redefine our average stress as many layers of mental work we carry with us that take away real mental energy leaving less mental energy to think, learn, concentrate, and enjoy the learning process. This differential treatment creates very real differences in learning by individual and by group.
The problem involves two entirely different treatments of Males and Females as early as one year of age and increases in differential treatment. This is creating the growing Male Crisis. The belief Males should be strong allows aggressive treatment of Males as early as one year, designed to create more layers of agitation, fear, and tension, so they will be prepared to fight, defend, and be tough. This is coupled with much "less" kind, stable, (very little verbal interaction) and less mental/emotional/social support, knowledge, and skills for fear of coddling. This increases over time and continued by society from peers, teachers and others in society. This creates more social/emotional distance from parents and other authority figures who have knowledge; lags in communication, vocabulary, sentence structure; also higher average stress (more layers of mental agitated conflicts, fears taking away real mental energy) that hurts learning and motivation to learn; also more activity due to need for stress relief; also more defensiveness and wariness of others further hindering emotional and social growth; and higher muscle tension (creating more pressure on pencil and tighter grip) that hurts writing and motivation to write. It creates much lag in development creating a learned sense of helplessness in school. This differential treatment continues through adulthood, almost fixing many Males onto roads of failure and escape into more short-term areas of enjoyment. Also society gives Males love and honor (essential needs for self-worth) only on condition of some achievement or status. This was designed to keep Male esteem and feelings of self-worth low to keep them striving and even give their lives in time of war for small measures of love and honor. Males not achieving in school or other are given more ridicule and discipline to make them try harder. Support is not an option for fear of coddling. Many Males thus falling behind in academics then turn their attention toward video games and sports to receive small measures of love/honor not received in the classroom.
As for reading, we need high social vocabulary, social experience with sentence structure, and “lower average stress to perform the abstract skill of reading: decoding, visualizing, organizing, reaching back into our social vocabulary to learn new words in print, and enjoying the process. Boys are deprived in these areas due to much less care, interaction, and more aggressive treatment in general.
I feel the shows of masculinity, misbehavior are pretty much copouts to both show separation from failure in school and to gleam small measures of love and honor from peers. The defensiveness from authority is really pretty straight forward, especially in lower socioeconomic areas where strength, power, and status hold very real currency in those areas. So for those students it not just misbehavior but for them, a tug of war or fight for minimum feelings of self-worth from a continual fight they feel outside the classroom as well as in.
The suicide epidemic is the result of Males being deprived sufficiently from those essential feelings of self-worth of less love and honor simply for being boys or men. The training they are given from an early age is preventing many of them from competing in the information age and thus losing the means to secure legally, income, status, power to earn in some way love and honor from society. This creates over time, psychological suffering that wears down their remaining feelings of self-worth to the point of suicide. As girls, we are treated much better and so enjoy more hope and care from society.
Since we as girls by differential treatment are given much more positive, continual, mental, emotional/social support verbal interaction and care from an early age onward this creates quite the opposite outcome for girls compared with boys. We enjoy much more continuous care and support from infancy through adulthood and receive love and honor simply for being girls. This creates all of the good things: lower average stress for more ease of learning (we do enjoy much freedom of expression that make us look less stable at times); lower muscle tension for better handwriting/motivation; higher social vocabulary/low stress for reading/motivation; much more positive, trust/communication with adults, teachers, peers; and much more support for perceived weaknesses. We are reaping a bonanza in the information age. The lower the socioeconomic bracket and time in that bracket the more amplified the differential treatment from a young age and increased and more differentiated over time. My learning theory and article on the Male Crisis will go to all on request or can be read from my home site at http://learningtheory.homestead.com/Theory.html

Oh, new site address has a more developed view of my learning theory. I hope my site address with a minor change in location will provide more information on the article I have written.

very true

Some researchers want to suggest that boys and girls are essentially the same except for a few minor biological parts and that socialization is the largest contributor. Socialization plays a role in all lives, but it does not change what brain science is beginning to reveal more and more each year. Michael Gurian's "The Wonder of Girls" and "The Wonder of Boys" are progressive books. That does not mean there are not instances when some girls have traits more often found in boys and that there are some boys with traits more often found in girls. The more we ignore inherent biological differences the more we deny certain truths. Not the only truths. But certain truths. The challenge of Gonzales and Gonzales is the inability to acknowledge that boys and girls are different. When Gonzales and Gonzales patronizingly suggest "a call for gender equity within educational institutions seems like a noble stance....and Sommers’ and Kullman’s draw on essentialist understandings of gender that solely take into consideration one’s biology," they underscore Sommers' and Kullman a great deal. Sommer and Kullman deeply understand that biology is an important component and not the only component.

The sly analogy that black girls possess male traits because they "are suspended at six times more the rate than their white counterparts" (the counterpart of black girls being white girls.) distracts us from the truth. It's rhetorical wit. But not much substance. All boys of every race are suspended (https://ocrdata.ed.gov/downloads/crdc-school-discipline-snapshot.pdf) more than all girls of every race. And boys are suspended and disciplined at dangerously higher rates for what many deem normal boy behavior. And the lack of tolerance begins early. Boys represent 79% of one time preschool suspensions and 82% of multiple pre-school suspensions (https://ocrdata.ed.gov/downloads/crdc-school-discipline-snapshot.pdf). If anything, socialization in education works against boys at early ages because schools are unprepared for the differentiated instruction needed. In other words, many schools are not prepared to handle boys and many boys learn quickly they are bad and school is not for them. U.S. Department of Education statistics reveal that women outnumber men in attained associates degrees (62%), bachelor degrees (57%), and master degrees (60%) (https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d08/tables/dt08_268.asp?referrer=report). The single largest education gap is the literary gap and not the math and science gap. Boys are struggling and it truly is one of the single biggest challenges of our time. Is there a Boy Crisis? Absolutely. Another progressive book on the struggle of boys is the recent release of The Boys Crisis (https://www.amazon.com/Boy-Crisis-Boys-Struggling-About/dp/1942952716) by Dr. Warren Farrell and Dr. John Gray. Socialization certainly plays a role, but not acknowledging biological difference may be the single biggest reason boys are falling further behind, committing suicide at significantly higher rates, and turning to drugs. Boys are doing these things because they feel isolated and misplaced. In the heart of nearly every boy is a warrior who just wants to come out. We cannot deny that primal urge. If we do, we all lose; sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, husbands, and wives. Denying biological differences is inherently wrong at a time when science is revealing more so how hired wired we truly are. Words like "essential identities" are the politics of denial. An attempt to suggest we really are all the same. We're not. It's the reason we've survived for thousands of years. What would it mean if we acknowledged we are different? We could embrace those difference and respect each other in new and meaningful ways that bring us closer together. Heck! We might even learn from each others differences.

Thank you for sharing

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