New research suggests that the supposed boys crisis in education isn’t actually a trend, but rather that the gap between male and female scholastic achievement has persisted over the last 100 years. This of course casts doubt on the contention of writers such as Christina Hoff Sommers who claim public educators have begun waging a “war against boys” on behalf of girls. Instead, it seems that girls have always been socialized to be easier to educate.
Of course what everyone seems to be missing is that arguing over which gender the public education system screws worst kind of ignores the fact is that the public education system screws every child. When 60% of high school seniors can’t read at a “proficient” level, does it really matter that a few more boys than girls are functionally illiterate?
By inventing a war on boys, conservatives and teachers unions both win. Conservatives get to blame something on their favorite boogeyman: feminism. In this case it’s a war on boys which doesn’t even exist. What conservatives rightly point to is that the way we teach boys to act, rebellious, loud, fidgety, is fundamentally incompatible with the way we teach students in public schools. Conservatives could look at the way teachers unions have fought education reform which might lead to competition, and resulting greater diversity in teaching styles and environments. But instead they blame feminism, which is at best tangentially related to public education’s problems.
The subtitle of Sommers’ book is “How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men.” But evidence that feminism had any impact on public education until the 1970’s is scarce. The research suggests that the “trend” of boys trailing girls in educational achievement is far older than feminist policies in the classroom. The authors of the new research found that girls exhibit superior average social and behavioral skills than boys beginning as early as kindergarten. This is correlated with higher average grades at each stage of school, leading to a higher likelihood of earning a degree for girls.
In fact, research indicates that sexism, not feminism, is behind lower male achievement. Thomas DiPrete, a sociology professor at Columbia University, has published work showing that:
Boys have historically been trained to think that they needn’t obey rules or work hard because men used to be able to drop out of high school and still earn wages comparable to better-educated women, thanks to jobs in fields like manufacturing, construction and travel. That’s not the case anymore.
In addition, a 2010 journal paper found that many boys did not know that they were likely to need a college degree. Gender stereotypes, peer pressure to conform to them, and lack of information may be limiting boys’ likelihood of attending college.
The fact that girls are socialized to sit down, be quiet and pay attention, while boys are not makes all the difference in their performance in school, which impacts their likelihood of attending and graduating from college. This isn’t a feminist conspiracy. It’s how teaching works (or, fails to) right now.
Writer Soraya Chemaly read the study and what she wants to know is, so what?
Higher academic achievement has not made a substantive dent in the fact that fidgety boys grow up to be fidgety men who dominate every sector of the public sphere. Men continue to earn more, accrue more wealth within their peer groups, and be the vast majority of political leaders, religious leaders, and corporate executives in every industry. Instead of asking hard questions about socialization and why girls’ academic performance has not resulted in a shift in power, we are still talking about a “boy crisis” in education.
Rather than looking at feminism, those concerned with boys’ educational attainment might instead look at education itself, as well as a changing economic landscape.
Fighting over who’s to blame for boys’ failure in school totally misses the bigger, more important questions at play here. First, it must be acknowledged that, as Chemaly notes, performance in school isn’t positively associated with power, prestige, or income. Perhaps that’s because school doesn’t teach what’s necessary for earning them. Instead, education works more like box which must be checked on one’s way to becoming eligible for positions of leadership.
And while girls are checking the college-degree check box more and more, boys are falling behind. Educational attainment skyrocketed starting in the 1950’s, and rising on through the 1970’s. In 1950, half of young adults aged between 25 and 29 were high school graduates. In 1960, a quarter of students dropped out of high school. Today, 90% of 25 to 29-year-olds hold a high school diploma.
While now pretty much everyone graduates high school, the same still isn’t true of college. For people born after 1950, the rate at which men graduate college has stagnated, while women’s college completion rates have grown and grown.
The last time men graduated from college more than women is 1970, when the rates were 20 percent for men and 14 percent for women. Now, women’s college enrollment exceeds men’s by a ratio of 1.4 to 1. For every two men who earned a college degree in 2010, three women did the same.
There was a time when a college degree wasn’t a requirement for a middle-class living. That time has passed. The first-world has moved from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based economy, where the need for raw strength and low- to mid-level skills has been replaced with the need for high-skill individuals with the ability to focus.
The men who do get college degrees have the opportunity to attain positions of power, and are more likely to do so than the women who get degrees. The men who don’t are likely to end up in prison or unemployed. Between 2007 and 2009, men disproportionately lost their jobs, to the point some called the period a “man-cession.” Those men with no college degree were far harder hit by job losses as construction and manufacturing contracted further.
It’s not feminism’s fault that someone who sits down, shuts up and pays attention is easier to educate than someone who won’t. Nor is it feminism’s fault that those are exactly the skills necessary to earn a bachelor’s degree. Nor is it feminism’s fault that in today’s economy, a bachelor’s degree is required to earn a decent living. Instead of blaming feminism, thinkers like Sommers would be better off thinking of ways to socialize boys more like girls, so they can be equally prepared for the rigors of education and the requirements of the modern world.
This post originally appeared at Libertychat.com.