Actually, a century ago the newspapers and magazines were filled with anxious experts worrying about exactly this – that school was somehow too feminine and tame for boys. In particular, Americans 100 years ago were worried about the negative effects of female teachers – would boys possibly become men if they lacked male role model teachers, or would they grow up to be wimps?
I mention this because what Mr Gurian sees as a new phenomenon, I see as a very old one – the tendency of some social conservatives to view boys as fragile and easily broken or corrupted by exposure to the feminine. Both a century ago and today, even mundane experiences – such as having a female teacher, or being made to sit in a classroom – are seen by some folks as damaging boys’ potential to become successful adult men.
For example, consider this quote from Herman Scheffauer, from Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1908:
It is not the making of the physical “mollycoddle” we need fear, but of the mental and moral one. It is weaklings of this sort, unreinforced with the proper stamina of soul, that have brought about the hideous reign of graft and crime that seems to devastate our land.
Mr. Gurian argues that in the past, boys classroom deficiencies were covered up by greater parental involvement, unlike today. And I have to say: huh? Is there any evidence that parents are less involved with their children’s educations today than in the past? If anything, parents are more hyper-involved than ever before – which is probably one reason more kids than ever go on to college after high school.
Mr. Gurian argues that the problem is that boys have brains which don’t do well in a classroom learning environment:
Uh-huh. It’s worth noting that the majority of empirical research has found that mentally, the sexes are far more alike than different (for a recent review, see Janet Hyde’s meta-analysis: “The Gender Similarities Hypothesis,” American Psychologist, Sept. 2005, p 581-592) . Even the famous math and language differences have shrunk to very minor differences over the years.
Take a look at this table (originally printed in the Chronicle of Higher Education, from US Department of Education numbers, and with thanks to Rachel’s Tavern).
If boys have brains that leave them less able to handle schooling than girls, then why is the effect so inconsistant? Why aren’t these base biological differences showing up in middle class white boys, or in asian boys of any class – aren’t they boys too?
What Mr. Gurian sees as a matter of universal differences in brains, looks to me a lot more like a complicated intersection of sex, race, and class.
Of course, it’s still possible that the “boy brains” thesis is true. Perhaps all boys have this “boy brain” defect, but that at some intersections of class and race parents and schools are systematically rescuing boys from their own brains. For instance, perhaps schools – due to racism and classism – are more willing to write off low-income black boys as a loss the first time they fall behind, but attempt to rescue middle-income white and asian boys.[*] And perhaps such “rescue attempts” given boys in the right income and racial classes enough of a boost to overcome the academic disadvantage of having boy brains.
[*] Actually, I have no doubt that this does happen.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Certainly explanations can be concocted. But if Mr. Gurian’s “boy brain” theory can only be rescued by resorting to explanations which take into account the effects of discrimination, sexism, class and race, we have to ask: what’s left over that we need the “boy brain” theory to explain? What explanatory power does it have, when it seems to fit the data much less well than the theory that if we could overcome the barriers of racism and classism, boys are as capable of flourishing in classrooms as girls are?
Wouldn’t it be simpler, given the differences we see, to start out by assuming that if middle-income white boys are capable of doing as well as middle-income white girls, then boys from other racial and income classes are, too?
It’s clear there is a real crisis going on here. There are way too many boys from indian, black, hispanic and low-income families who are not benefitting from school, and whose future is needlessly dim; it’s a tragedy for those boys and for our entire society if things keep going the way they’ve been. I wish I had the solution, but I don’t. Nonetheless, I’m convinced that wrong analysis will lead us to wrong solutions. The people who are focusing on boy’s brains, and pretty much ignoring class and race, are coming up with solutions that will be expensive and unhelpful at best, and actually harmful at worst.
UPDATE: EL at “My Amusement Park” comments.