We seem stuck in this zero-sum game in which concern about girls means that we necessarily ‘neglect’ boys.
Years after conservative pundits began to warn of a “war against boys,” we’ve started to see the mainstream media pick up the argument. A USA Today headline warns, “Pay Closer Attention: Boys Are Struggling Academically.” Business Week calls the problem “The New Gender Gap” and claims that boys are now “the second sex.” In a Newsweek cover story, it’s “The Boy Crisis.”
The issue has even attracted the attention of the White House, where Laura Bush is leading a campaign to help boys improve in school. She told National Public Radio, “I feel like, in the United States, that we’ve sort of shifted our gaze away from boys for the last several decades, and that we’ve neglected boys.” If that’s not enough, a new book by the Harvard University scholar Harvey C. Mansfield argues that we’ve forgotten the virtues of “manliness” (his book’s title), and that this is a direct consequence of the women’s movement, with its insistence on, as he puts it, “a practice of equality between the sexes that has never been known before in all human history.”
There are legitimate concerns about boys’ achievement. But there are also legitimate concerns about the way the current discussion is being framed. Headlines repeatedly pit girls against boys, and accompanying photos often show boys with hurt expressions, looking dejected, slumped over their desks. The girls who surround them in these pictures are caught mid-laugh, whispering to a friend, sitting atop the monkey bars, or staring at the camera with defiant self-confidence. The message is not only that girls are doing great and boys are suffering. It’s also that the girls are cocky about it, mean, and satisfied with the situation.
There are, as the saying goes, so many things wrong with this picture. It’s not girls’ fault that boys are struggling in school. Nor is it teachers’ fault. It’s the fault of a society that tells boys doing well in school is for losers and geeks—and that being tough, even aggressive, is cool. But rather than think about the shortcomings of American masculinity, we’ve found someone else to blame: girls and those trying to talk about girls’ issues.
Our concern as educators, psychologists, and parents ought to be about providing the best for all children, both girls and boys. But we seem stuck in this zero-sum game in which concern about girls means that we necessarily “neglect” boys. In a world of scarce funding for education, in a culture steeped in gender stereotypes, giving to one group translates into taking away from another. We’ve seen it with the Title IX backlash—give the girls a hockey team, lose the boys’ wrestling program. It’s the girls’ fault for wanting half.
Experts on boys say that girls are outperforming boys because schools are privileging “girl subjects,” such as reading and writing, and girls’ ways of doing things, like cooperative learning and sitting at desks. They say the real problem has nothing to do with boys and everything to do with the fact that 90 percent of elementary school teachers and 76 percent of secondary teachers are women. The language spoken in schools disenfranchises boys, the argument goes. Boys don’t want to read about girl things like feelings and relationships. Affirm boyness, and the pattern will reverse itself.
But hasn’t the media been affirming boyness for decades? A recent report from Dads and Daughters and the See Jane program says that 75 percent of characters in the top-grossing G-rated films from 1990 through 2004 were male. Male characters also dominate Newbery Medal-winning children’s books, popular video games, and toys that have anything to do with action, competition, and power. (Girl power, alas, has become the power to shop and accessorize.) Yet lots of girls read these books, play Gameboys, and “prepare to fight” their Pokémon. And still they achieve in school and attend college in higher numbers than boys.
There may be a boy crisis, but boys are by no means the second sex.
What about women teachers as the source of the problem? Gender disparity in teaching has existed since the days of the single-room schoolhouse, while the “boy problem” is relatively new. Indeed, while the ambivalence about girls’ success and visibility is abundantly clear in the newspaper stories, the deeper societal shame, if we read the headlines and photos correctly, is that boys are not doing as well as girls. What rarely gets addressed is how—and why—being “girly” is the worst thing a boy can be, such that if you code school success as female, boys will avoid it like the plague. This is a function of the sexism that pervades our culture, not teachers’ bias against boys.
There may be a boy crisis, but boys are by no means the second sex. Rather than blame women teachers and, more subtly, those too-confident girls answering questions and taking up space, we might want to look at the real culprits: poverty, racism, and heavy doses of toxic masculinity with its persistent message to boys that studying is for wimps, nerds, and—you guessed it—girls.
A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2006 edition of Education Week as What About the Boys?