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July 06, 2006

A Boy Problem at School?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

An interesting Rizurkhen posting at GNXP prompted a few lines from me that I'm feeling pleased about. The topic was, "Is there really a boy problem in education today?", because, y'know, girls -- although in PC myth supposedly discriminated-against -- are outperforming boys in nearly every sense in schools these days. If vulgar language makes you turn your nose up, then I suggest you skip the following. Anyway, my response:

I always thought school was for girls anyway (and I'm an oldie, so I'm going back to the pre-feminist '50s and '60s for my grammar school and junior high memories). School wasn't easy for boys. Sit still ... Behave well ... Be quiet ... Pay attention ... Read boring, well-meaning books ... Do homework ... Turn it in on time ...

This was all stuff girls seemed by nature to do well, while boys loved being physical, irreverent, and flashy, and (of course) crashing into walls and going down in flames. Imagine my surprise when the feminists came along and announced that school was a conspiracy against girls! If anything in life seemed to me to favor girls, it was school. Feminizing school yet further seemed like the last thing anyone really needed.

I still think the feminists were nuts on this point. I also think that if we were to be serious about providing good schooling for boys, it would include 1) lots more male teachers, 2) lots more opportunities to be physical, 3) lots more in the way of reading and media material of the kind boys tend to prefer (why not more comic books, for example?), 3) and lots more opportunities to build shit and blow shit up.

As an old fart who's been working in the same field for far too long, and who has seen the generations come and go, I can report that the current youngsters are a special breed. By contrast to the politicize-everything Boomer-divas and the spiteful Xers, they're very sweet, nice, and untroubled. (They also seem to be completely uneducated, except in computers and careerizing. Perhaps ignorance really is bliss!) But the young women are sooooo much more cocksure and confident than the guys ... It's really striking. They're dynamos: bright, competent, fit, pulled-together, going places, always with keys, waterbottle, and cellphone in hand.

The guys by contrast look hangdog. They wear their shirttails out, are physically slack (or overbulked-up in a stupid-gym-rat way), have bedhead, and specialize in sheepish expressions and bitchy asides. I get the impression of a generation of dudes who have had the "guy" knocked out of them, who have no idea how to be men, who assume that the gals are automatically the stars, and who lurk around the sidelines hoping they'll score some nooky every now and then because -- after all and thank god -- most chicks still want boyfriends.

School: Did it strike you as suiting girls or boys better? And what do today's 23-year-olds seem like to you?

I wrote a posting about '70s feminism here, and another one here.



posted by Michael at July 6, 2006


As a parent of two boys and an (older) girl, I can say that your observations are dead-on, Michael. My middle one just suffered through fourth grade with a clueless newbie female teacher and a pack of extremely rowdy boys--fortunately we pushed for and are getting a terrific 5th grade male teacher for him. My youngest son is a born tinkerer, totally into building shit and blowing shit up. My wife and I are somewhat at a loss, figuring out how they fit into the public school system. And we're not alone -- I'd say a third of the people we know (including my sister-in-law) are home schooling or thinking about it. Home schooling--it's not just for religous wackos any more.

Posted by: Steve on July 6, 2006 1:45 PM

"and who lurk around on the sidelines hoping they'll score some nooky every now and then because -- after all and thank god -- most chicks still want boyfriends"

Except most of these boys will NOT score any nooky. The girls are all chasing after the same handful of studly Alpha males - the jocks, the fratboys, the BMOC types - and have nothing but scorn for most young men. God help you if you're a high school- or college-aged male and are into sci-fi, Trek, D&D or similar activities rather than something "manly" like sports. The only women you'll be scoring with are Mrs. Palm and her five daughters :((((

Posted by: Peter on July 6, 2006 2:25 PM

I wouldn't peg schools as the place where boys should learn to be men.

I do agree that boys (in general) get a raw deal in elementary school. Same with pre-school daycare. Those worlds are run mostly by young, childless women fresh out of either Early Childhood Dev. or Education degrees. They recoil in horror at the natural rambunctiousness of boys. I think I commented before about our oldest getting a referral for "running on the blacktop," which is not allowed. What the holy fuck!?

However, I disagree with your theory once kids get into middle school. Lots of opportunities for boys (and girls) to participate in sports, science classes, band, woodshop, etc. And the traditional academic classes get more interesting and relevant.

Also, I know of many boys who respond well to the academic process in public shcools. I and my geeky group of friends were that type of kid.

Posted by: the patriarch on July 6, 2006 4:28 PM

Wow, my experience has pretty much been the polar opposite. My early-30's husband never felt "the guy" was there to be beaten out of him, though he does apologize for his socially unacceptable lack of interest in football, and I've met very few highly educated (which would make them girly?) men who don't get nooky.

If schools need to attend to their underperforming students and that student responds better to demonstration and experiment than to books and lectures, then I think that would benefit any number of individual students of both genders. It doesn't have to be a gender issue, and it's dangerous to make it a gender issue.

Just my 2 cents!

Posted by: Alexis on July 6, 2006 4:32 PM

I actually agree with Alexis that this doesn't have to be a gender issue--while my daughter is doing great grade-wise in school, that's mainly because she's supremely adaptable, and I don't doubt for a minute that she, like the boys, would benefit greatly from a more physically and intellectually stimulating classroom.

As for The Patriarch, sorry, but all the female elementary school teachers I know have kids of their own. And most of them have been great teachers who understand boys quite well, though both my boys happened to get duds last year. But it's also true that, in a classroom environment, my middle son in particular just responds better to male teachers. It's the wolf pack/alpha male syndrome.

And, in my experience, it isn't the teachers who institute dumbo policies like "no running on the blacktop"--it's the (predominantly male) administrators.

Posted by: Steve on July 6, 2006 5:21 PM

True about the policies being implemented by administrators, and most likely due to the stranglehold insurance companies have over us all.

My oldest son had one male teacher until he hit middle school. Of the female teachers, only one had kids herself and, surprise, she was fantastic. Also, she was older and had been teaching for 30 years. Not saying parenthood is a pre-requisite to being a good teacher, in fact, I'd blame inexperience more than childlessness for my son's bad teachers.

Posted by: the patriarch on July 6, 2006 5:35 PM

This is part of a larger problem - that the feminization of office workplaces (to accomodate increasing number of women entering the workforce) is leading to a dichotomy where:

feminine behaviour = white collar
masculine behaviour = blue collar

There are a few exceptions - like the hard sciences and certain niches in finance. By and large however, the dichotomy is already with us. In my home city of Brisbane, there are already complaints from young women that there's a shortage of single men who work in the central business district.

Now let us assume that the purpose of schools is to groom children to become white collar instead of blue collar. This may not be the official purpose of schools, but it's most likely what parents want schools to do for their children, even if they don't admit it. If schools are feminizing boys (making them docile, PC etc), then that will make them fit better into a white collar working environment. On these grounds, it's hard to criticise schools - they're simply a symptom of this larger problem.

Posted by: Tom on July 6, 2006 5:59 PM

"In my home city of Brisbane, there are already complaints from young women that there's a shortage of single men who work in the central business district."

Heh. That supposed "shortage" notwithstanding, if Australia's anything like the United States the singles bars in Brisbane are at least 90% male. Women whine incessantly about how there are no men for them when in fact any woman who's even _remotely_ decent looking has her choice of men. And any man who's even slightly overweight, unathletic, nerdy or just plain non-Alpha is s*** out of luck.

Posted by: Peter on July 6, 2006 7:10 PM

Peter - these particular complaints have been backed up with statistical data - I wouldn't have mentioned it otherwise. Not that you don't make a valid point: implicit in the womens' complaint is the notion that for any young woman working a decent job at a city firm, only a man with a job at least as good will do. Would a female at a top tier law firm even consider dating some guy from a suburban legal practice let alone a plumber or a miner? Hoo boy. Now assuming that women won't ever be reasonable about this sort of thing, (and let's face it, they won't) you can see how this relative 'failure' of boys in school is going to cause havoc in the mating game for decades to come.

Posted by: Tom on July 6, 2006 7:33 PM

the patriarch"I wouldn't peg schools as the place where boys should learn to be men."

Hmmm. Here's something that caught my eye in an old book:

"Among the most potent and beneficent influences in England during the decade from 1830 to 1840 were the teaching and example of Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School. The distinctively intellectual qualifications of Arnold for his work - his scholarship, his executive capacity, his stimulating methods of instruction, his vivid historical imagination - all these he himself considered subservient to the highest purpose of education: the formation of intelligent, independent moral character. His famous statement to his boys became the watchword of Rugby: 'It is not necessary that this should be a school of three hundred, or even one hundred, or even fifty boys; but it is necessary that it should be a school of Chistian gentlemen.'"

I'd agree. The purpose of education is a) to build character and b) to preserve culture. Whether the public schools are capable of that is a matter for grave doubt.

This is a minority view of course. Education's purpose today is about a) jobs for bureaucrats b) hare-brained social engineering and c) the righting of perceived wrongs. Or so I gather.

(The quote's from An Old Castle And Other Essays by CT Winchester, professor at Wesleyan ~ 1900-ish.)

Posted by: Brian on July 6, 2006 8:21 PM

Chiming in to support Alexis' point that using demonstrations and experiments as well as books and lectures would help students of both genders who flourish with more hands-on learning.

When I was a girl, I certainly would have enjoyed school far more if there had been more explosions and less exposition. More blacktop and less blackboard. But at least I could go out and play or putter after being released from the torture of sitting still for a schoolday. Too many kids I know today have too much homework and planned activities to just run around. Which probably makes sitting still in schoolthat much harder on the energetic ones.

Posted by: Elaine on July 6, 2006 8:59 PM

Great post/thread.

Hong Kong, where I live, is an interesting case in point. Educational success is astonishingly important here, and although I don’t think the schools are as PC-infested as those in the US or UK, they certainly emphasize ‘scholarly’, quiet behavior. Girls (like my 4-year-old daughter) have a huge advantage, temperamentally and developmentally.

What’s interesting is to then take a look at the dating/marriage demographics down the line. Hong Kong is of course part of a greater Chinese/Confucian culture that values males as offspring, and in which it’s highly unusual to find women married to men who have lower-paid jobs or lesser status. So lots of Hong Kong men who haven’t quite made it to the top of the education/status ladder end up marrying women from mainland China; many even set up housekeeping there, and commute across the border to work back in Hong Kong.

This leaves what seems to be a huge surplus of attractive, highly educated, generally wonderful single Hong Kong-born women. My wife (who’s Hong Kong Chinese herself) has a group of about half a dozen friends she graduated from university with some (ahem!) years ago. They’re accomplished, cultured, well-traveled, successful in their careers – and all totally unattached. My wife is the only one who’s ever married, and of course it’s to a foreigner . . . .

So it’s good times for the single local or expatriate man who has reasonable status – it’s conversely much tougher for local, and especially expatriate, single women.

Posted by: mr tall on July 6, 2006 9:17 PM

As a small aside to this interesting conversation (to which I have nothing substatntial to add), the proper terminology is sex, not gender. The feminists replaced the word sex with gender, which refers solely to language, as they perceived the differences between the sexes to be merely an artificial construct, and signified it so. As you here are all aware, real differences between the sexes exist (thank God!). So to flip-off those who have adopted PC speak (or squeak), you might wish to amend this. I'll butt out now.

Posted by: s on July 6, 2006 10:22 PM

i ended up dropping out of high school after deciding it was for pussies who let stupid adults push them around. it was a rash rebellious thing to do, but it ended up working out great for me as i was able to start up my own business in my teens while my peers were racking up student debt at overpiced colleges.

Posted by: Zetji on July 6, 2006 11:45 PM

This last time I taught (2001) I only lasted until November 5 at a nearby small town high school. They didn't want to hire me because I have a reputation for being trouble for administrators, and they were right to worry. One class of boys had been out of control for years. They had been taught that they were (they told me) athletically gifted and athletics is everything in small town Montana. They had destroyed the young man who had them the year before -- he left teaching. Another man had been transferred to teaching business because he said he would "kill" those boys.

The truth is that I have a weak spot for troublesome boys and we got along pretty well. Until one jerked off in class. (Girls don't normally do this. Well, boys don't normally do it in class.) But what really motivated me to quit was the girls, who ran tattling to the female principal every day to report that I wasn't teaching the right way, wasn't teaching what they wanted to learn, was grading too hard, and etc.

I know the smart, sweet, thoughtful kind of boys in middle-class families from when I was a Unitarian and in bigger cities. But out here in the trackless West, boys are big dumb ball-player guys who drive huge pickups and chug beer or they are losers. Girls here play them for fools, play the school for fools, play dad for a fool, conspire with mom and win. They terrify me.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on July 7, 2006 12:11 AM

girls -- although in PC myth supposedly discriminated-against

Well, girls could outperform boys and *still* be discriminated against. If the school system is designed as such that girls *should* be doing 100% better than boys and are only doing 50% better, then it may truthfully be that discrimination is preventing girls from reaching their full potential, while boys may be working at their full potential (given what is being demanded of them).

Frankly, the world isn't heading in the direction of needing more brute strength. Essentially the modern world really needs more "female" characteristics (although male competitive aspects are still useful).

Now assuming that women won't ever be reasonable about this sort of thing

Given that women are statistically likely to bear the brunt of the household, childrearing and relationship work, it's perhaps not unreasonable for women to expect their partner to at least hold their own in the wage-earning work.

Of course, as male-oriented talents become less and less useful in society, there is likely a crisis in expectations. But given that male-oriented talents aren't all that suited to household, childrearing and relation work either, it's hard to see just what would make males all that attractive (outside of hormones).

[Yes, exaggerated for effect...]

Posted by: Tom West on July 7, 2006 2:01 AM

Jobs/careers that provide the highest compensation and/or require the most brainpower & training (e.g. sciences, technology, law, medicine, etc.)will (and have always) required people that are able to sit still, pay attention, and concentrate on a topic for a long period of time.

These are valuable skills that will serve one well in the future, not just feminized, stupid girl stuff. They are the basis for any serious intellectual work. If we want them to be competitive in the future, boys better learn them early in life.

Posted by: Alan on July 7, 2006 9:19 AM

There is plenty of work indicating that Catholic schools do a better job than equivalent public or private schools in educating kids --- especially lower income kids. One point I've never seen mentioned is their treatment of boys. In observing a few different middle school programs recently, I was surprised to find how large a role "the masculine virtues" played. Not just sports and the like. But the readings were much more like the books we read in the 60s. Adventure, Poe, Twain, Conan Doyle, some military history. Competition in academics was strongly encouraged. Jesuits in particular are very good at making schooling seem like sports by organizing boys into teams and competing in quiz-show style contests. And of course, in all boys' schools, school assemblies were occasions to celebrate "gentlemanliness" to emphasize to boys' the expectations that they would grow up to be Catholic gentlemen. The feel was very retro. Yet both the richer Preppies in the white suburbs and the poorer boys in the all black Catholic schools seemed to respond well to this "indoctrination."

Posted by: Vincent on July 7, 2006 9:19 AM


Christina Hoff Sommers broached this topic in the great (if a bit repetitive near the end) "The War Against Boys"

I sometimes wonder what the upcoming crop of homeschooled kids are going to be like in this regard, because moms and dads will naturally let their boys (and girls) be more themselves.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on July 7, 2006 9:28 AM

It'll be fun to see how the homeschooled turn out. I don't think I've run into any yet. Are they getting to be of post-college age yet?

Hey, a thought I haven't seen floated anywhere else? Assuming for the moment that society has spent the last 30 years putting tremendous resources into turning out our current bumper crop of hyper-confident young women ... (I know this is debatable, but it seems clear enough to me.) Anyway, let's say society has put a whole lot of energy, time, brainpower and will into turning out these go-getting girls. They're also post-feminist -- they've got nothing really to prove, and no political axe to grind. I'm betting that a whole lot of them are going to lead lives along these lines: adventurous 20s, snagging the hubster in the early 30s, dropping out of work to raise the kiddies, then returning (if at all) on a parttime basis.

This isn't entirely projection. I've met female execs who confide that they hate hiring young women, because they know they're going to spend a couple of years getting them up to speed and then they'll quit at 30. And I've met young women who cheerily announce that these are their plans -- much to the horror of their Boomer gal-bosses. Besides, it's a pretty sensible life-plan for women today. Also, how many women pop out of college assuming they're going to spend all their adult years in the job-and-professional world?

OK, then. What this means, as far as I can tell, is that we've committed tremendous resources to producing a generation of young people the best-trained and most-confident of whom (the gals) aren't going to be contributing tons and tons to the professional world, simply because they'll be taking time off for families and kids. Meanwhile, the guys who will be out there slogging away year-after-year as cannon fodder will be lacking the best training, and won't have much confidence. We'll have put our own best societal energies into creating a class of young-dynamo leaders (gals) most of whom aren't in fact going to be leading, and a class of sheepish hangdog losers (guys) who will be left holding the ball and not knowing what to do with it.

Is this a smart thing for a society to have done?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 7, 2006 10:19 AM

The homeschoolers here are doing TERRIFIC! Most of the ones I know of are boys with dedicated mothers. They seem to be of good character, self-confident (mom really loves me) and quietly achieving young men.

Another factor we have here are charter schools, which are hard to peg. The Immersion Blackfeet School's first students (girls) are getting to college now and doing very well there. If they don't know something, they assume that they can put in a little effort and soon find it out. The Catholic and Baptist church charter school students are not known to me, but the community thinks they are doing well. At least they don't come home beat up.

The impression I get is that it is the public school that has become deeply problematic.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on July 7, 2006 7:13 PM

Is this a smart thing for a society to have done?

In all seriousness, is there anything else we *could* have done? To acknowledge that many women will indeed leave the workforce is to essentially deny it to all of them. (Okay, to make it *much* for difficult for those who do want to enter the workforce permanently to do so effectively.)

Essentially the system is designed to prevent a severe injustice, and if the outcome of the system is less than optimal in its ends, at least it is just in its means.

Besides, according to many posting here, most of these working women won't be dropping out of the workplace to start families because they will be unable to find eligible husbands...

Posted by: Tom West on July 7, 2006 8:47 PM

I can only speak from my specific personal experience, of course: small-town Midwestern public elementary school just before and after 1960. But certainly the boys I knew and hung around with were convinced that school was a system rigged against them. First there was the schoolmarm teacher, who simply had to be favoring the girls because she was one of them and on their side. The girls in general just seemed better adapted to classroom conditions, doing their work as told to, participating in activities, listening attentively to what Teacher said... while the boys resented being cooped up in a stuffy classroom and had more trouble sitting still and paying attention. The two or three top-good-grade-getters in the class were all girls, and the boys scorned them as "teachers' pets." The way the system was rigged, one could succeed only by being a favorite.

Of course, the teacher and the girls would have had a different opinion on how things worked; I'm just stating how some of the boys I knew saw it. As for me, I had my own set of problems, which had little to do with the difference between boys and girls and more my trouble in getting with the program, any program.

Still, when the claim was made some years back that school was rigged against girls, I could only be astonished. It hadn't seemed that way when I was there. Maybe the trouble was supposed to start later, like in Junior High, when there was no longer the usually female schoolmarm in charge of a single class all year long, when there were different teachers teaching different classes, and smart boys started coming into their own in math and science classes, intimidating girls who'd pretty much had it their own way until then. I think part of the argument was that girls have supposedly been shown to do better in traditionally boy-dominated subjects when they're in all-girl classes.

Meanwhile, I wasn't much for math (I'm with Barbie on that one) and my casual interest in science wasn't deep enough to be very good at that, either, but somehow I kept getting put in Advanced Placement-type English classes, where articulate intellectual girls were anything but suppressed and intimidated.

Posted by: Dwight Decker on July 8, 2006 1:05 PM

"It'll be fun to see how the homeschooled turn out. I don't think I've run into any yet. Are they getting to be of post-college age yet? "

My homeschooled daughter graduated college this past spring, but is still a bit young (under 21)for me to ascertain how she compares to her public or private schooled counterparts. If the homeschool topic comes up or you have questions I'll comment more.

Posted by: Sam on July 9, 2006 9:14 AM

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