Update on the "Boy Crisis"

April 12, 2006

Two female college professors wrote an intriguing column for this past Sunday’s Washington Post discounting much of the First Lady’s and media’s hype over the “boy crisis.”

In case you haven’t heard, boys are screwed over by our current educational system, partly because our largely female instructors don’t understand that boys are wired differently than girls to learn. Now they are falling behind in the classroom and are now less likely than girls to apply to colleges. Schools are finding ways to help them, including all-boy classrooms in primary and secondary schools and even affirmative action in college.

While it’s true that boys are disproportionately diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and placed in special education classes, what the “crying-wolf” crowd doesn’t point out is that it is primarily low-income rural and inner city boys who are affected. Affluent white males are still attending college at the same rate as their female counterparts and still outnumber women in Ivy League colleges, according to professors Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Chait Barnett. Here’s an interesting historical tidbit they dug up:

It was the early 1900s, and boys were supposedly in crisis. In monthly magazines, ladies’ journals and books, urgent polemics appeared, warning that young men were spending too much time in school with female teachers and that the constant interaction with women was robbing them of their manhood. In Congress, Sen. Albert Beveridge of Indiana railed against overeducation. He urged young men to “avoid books and in fact avoid all artificial learning, for the forefathers put America on the right path by learning completely from natural experience.”

Wow, was ignorance prevalent even back then. I remember reading in David McCullough’s John Adams that our forefathers were hardcore, Harvard-educated intellectuals who read the Illiad in Greek in their spare time. Now I bet we’d be hard-pressed to find high school students who have read it in English! Anyways, there’s more to this anecdote:

What boys needed, the experts said, was time outdoors, rubbing elbows with one another and learning from male role models. That’s what led — at least in part — to the founding of the Boy Scouts in 1910.

While I agree that both American boys and girls need more exercise — P.E. time as Gloria blogged below — I don’t think lowering academic standards for boys is the way to go. Not only does it shortchange our boys, but places them in this neat stereotypical category as high-energy, incapable of concentrating on anything for more than five minutes, video-game-playing, unemotional, well, you get my drift — basically, too slow to compete with girls in a regular classroom. My son is extremely shy and introverted and probably models typical “girl” behavior. He’d probably fare better in the all-girls classroom if that were the direction our schools are headed.

As for the boys who really are in trouble, I like the solution Rivers and Barnett touch upon:

We may see a rush to single-sex classrooms that won’t really be good educational policy. California tried such classrooms in the 1990s under Gov. Pete Wilson, but they did not succeed in boosting academic achievement. In fact, according to a 2001 Ford Foundation report, the academic success of both girls and boys is influenced more by small classes, strong curricula and qualified teachers than by single-sex settings.