Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Trouble With Girls Against Boys

I put together two titles from my recent readings, one from Katha Pollitt's column "Girls Against Boys", and one from a recent Newsweek article entitled "The Trouble With Boys" (thanks to Rietz Fischer for this link). They both talk about the difficulties boys have at school. Or rather, the difficulties some boys have, though the Newsweek article does not clarify that very well.

"The Trouble with Boys" can be summarized as stating that the author believes boys are a different species from girls, need totally different things to thrive at school, and feminism has made the American schools into a place where only girls can strive. Schools are for girls. If we continue down this road, horrible things will happen, horrible. Like smart women won't be able to find husbands. The article quotes every biased right-winger "scientist" I've ever heard, especially Michael Gurian who is not even a scientist but a psychologist with no science training, and includes this little quote:

Some scholars, notably Christina Hoff Sommers, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, charge that misguided feminism is what's been hurting boys. In the 1990s, she says, girls were making strong, steady progress toward parity in schools, but feminist educators portrayed them as disadvantaged and lavished them with support and attention. Boys, meanwhile, whose rates of achievement had begun to falter, were ignored and their problems allowed to fester.

Now you know. Notice how "some scholars" say this, scholars which happen to have no training in the field of education...

Katha Pollitt addresses the sudden flood of these articles and opinion pieces on how bad it is for women if men do poorly at school in her column, though she is mainly responding to John Tierney's feverish rants:

The conservative spin on the education gender gap is that feminism has ruined school for boys. "Why would any self-respecting boy want to attend one of America's increasingly feminized universities?" asks George Gilder in National Review. "Most of these institutions have flounced through the last forty years fashioning a fluffy pink playpen of feminist studies and agitprop 'herstory,' taught amid a green goo of eco-motherism and anti-industrial phobia." Sounds like fun, but it doesn't sound much like West Texas A&M, Baylor, Loyola or the University of Alabama, where female students outnumber males in about the same proportion as they do at trendy Berkeley and Brown. Even Hillsdale College, the conservative academic mecca that became famous for rejecting federal funds rather than comply with government regulations against sex discrimination, has a student body that is 51 percent female. Other pundits--Michael Gurian, Kate O'Beirne, Christina Hoff Sommers--blame the culture of elementary school and high school: too many female teachers, too much sitting quietly, not enough sports and a feminist-friendly curriculum that forces boys to read--oh no!--books by women. Worse--books about women.

For the record, in middle school my daughter was assigned exactly one book by a woman: Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. In high school she read three, Mrs. Dalloway, Beloved and Uncle Tom's Cabin, while required reading included male authors from Shakespeare and Fitzgerald and Sophocles to (I kid you not) James Michener and Robert Adams, author of Watership Down. Four books in seven years: Is that what we're arguing about here? Furthermore, I don't know where those pundits went to school, but education has always involved a lot of sitting, a lot of organizing, a lot of deadlines and a lot of work you didn't necessarily feel like doing. It's always been heavily verbal--in fact, today's textbooks are unbelievably dumbed down and visually hyped compared with fifty years ago. Conservatives talk as if boys should be taught in some kind of cross between boot camp and Treasure Island--but what kind of preparation for modern life would that be? As for the decline of gym and teams and band--activities that keep academically struggling kids, especially boys, coming to school--whose idea was it to cut those "frills" in the first place if not conservatives?

The story never changes. It is always about a fixed education cake and who can get most of it. If girls are doing better it must be hurting boys. That, my dear readers, is the hidden right-wing agenda. Because the wingnuts want to segregate girls and boys in education so that they can bring up "manly and godly" men. Segregated education would also make it a lot easier to give girls' classes less resources and stuff. And I do suspect that there are wingnuts who really would love to see women uneducated so that the "bare-foot and in the kitchen" part would be easier.

Let's cast some light into the corridors of tortured wingnut thinking. First, notice that anecdotal evidence is easy to come by. I know a little girl who has a lot of attention problems and her school ignores her. I could find several others and then I could write a story about how girls are doing poorly at school. In other words, anecdotes do not make convincing statistical evidence. We must look at the overall numbers.

These numbers do show that boys have problems, but the boys that have problems are those belonging to ethnic minorities and the poor. Ampersand provided this table on the United States which is very enlightening:

Are we talking about boys versus girls because we don't dare to utter race or class in the discussion? Look carefully at the bottom row in this table. It shows that the boys' problem has a lot to do with poverty. And the race comparisons reveal that school performance is a problem with minority boys. This suggests to me that something about the culture of masculinity might be played out here, and that perhaps also poorer boys see their future jobs in blue-collar fields or in crime. Poorer girls don't have very good money-making opportunities in those fields, so they may feel forced to try to get more education. Just an idle thought, but then so are many of the ones the media publishes.

Second, notice how these articles always talk about the need to sit down and to listen quietly at school as one the mean things feminists have somehow done to make boys do poorly? And how it was the feminist movement which confused our clear understanding, the clear understanding that we always did have in the past, of how different boys and girls really are? Well, you might then think about the fact that the schools where students have to sit down and listen quietly were made explicitly for boys. Not for girls who were not allowed to go to school at the beginning, but for boys. By those old-timers who knew exactly what the biological needs of boys were.

Third, these articles never look at what is happening to boys and girls in other countries. Because it would mess up the ideological message they are trying to convey: that it's time to refocus the education system on maintaining the old gender roles. If you look at college participation rates by gender across the world you will find that female participation rates are equal or higher than male participation rates in all countries which allow women and girls access to education. Even Iran, that member of the axis-of-evil, has sixty percent women among its university students.

Is Iran a place where feminists have changed the school system to disadvantage boys?

These types of questions are never answered in the wingnut articles, as they would not lead to the conclusion that the article wishes to reach: that we need to go back to the times when it was girls that were really suffering in education. Otherwise the sky will fall.

The last paragraph explains why I get so very angry when I read the wingnut literature on the topic. Because of the hidden ultimate goal of all these writings. At the same time I always feel guilty because I do care about how well boys are doing at school, and I do want all children to have equal access to good education. But I don't want to see girls put down so that boys can do better, and that is what the wingnut message is. Read the Newsweek article again and notice how the girls are described in it: as obedient little ciphers.

Surely it is possible to create an education system which takes care of all children without causing the end of the Western civilization, and without arguing that the trouble with boys is really all about girls. Without setting Girls Against Boys.
I strongly recommend Ampersand's two-part series on this topic: Part I and Part II.