Summary: The struggles of boys in today’s American schools reflect historical assaults on their self-image and the erosion of legitimate authority in the culture.
It was an impressive group of kids, these seniors at my high school outside of Seattle. I’d called them together, about sixty strong, all of them from low income families, in order to communicate some details about the College Bound Scholar program they’d enrolled in during eighth and ninth grade, and which was about to help fund their college attendance in the next school year.
The Washington legislature, which otherwise struggles to properly fund public education in the state, several years before had understood some basic incentives correctly, and had guaranteed tuition paid for low income high school graduates in good standing when they moved on to college. Hence, the College Bound Scholar program.
I was struck by the multi-racial, multi-ethnic make-up of the group, proud and successful kids.
But I was also struck by one other characteristic – the overwhelming majority of the kids in front of me were young women. Where were the guys?
It is not news that our boys are lagging by many measures, whether those be academic or behavioral. As David Leonhardt reports in the New York Times, while we correctly focus much attention on the gap in school performance between kids from poor families and those more affluent, in behavioral measures of school appropriateness that translate into quality of academic performance a greater disparity exists between boys and girls than between rich and poor kids, or between students of different racial or ethnic groups.
Yup. We got a boy problem in our schools, played out in the makeup of the fine group I encountered that day in my school. The lesson from my group of College Bound Scholars is that the low income young women of my school would respond rationally to the economic incentive of paid college tuition, but that the problem of reaching their male counterparts proved much more enigmatic. Despite the lure, too many of the comparable boys simply did not or would not organize themselves toward similar success.
While observers are rightly careful to hedge their bets on any one contributing factor, to my mind the underlying patterns can be detected in a variety of cultural changes over the last forty years, loosely constellated around male self-image on one hand, and around the breakdown of authority and social structure on the other.
The women’s movement over that period has done a remarkable job of enlarging employment options available to young women. Not only may they aspire to be a teacher, but a superintendent, or the lawyer who crafts legislation, or the senator who enables it.
Of course men continue to have such options open to them, and in fact boys in academically challenging environments do just fine.
However, the loss of middle class factory jobs to overseas workers leaves the sons and grandsons of men who once worked with their hands contending with a tight labor market. Even with a current stateside mini-renaissance, today’s proverbial job on the factory room floor has more of a technical, highly trained bent to it than that of their fathers.
The well-paying jobs today, in short, require more brain than brawn, as much skill and education as a simple willingness to work hard. Hence, for our young men as well as young women the labor market puts a premium on what is learned in school and college.
Once upon a time a guy could ride west to seek fortune in a variety of extractive or farming enterprises – physically active pursuits all – and succeed by the willing bend of his back as well as by native guile. As cultural history, our current boy dilemma is a late phase in the demise of the frontier mentality, as mediated by the rise of technology and the complexity of the global economy.
Arguably male dominion over women was part of this earlier world view and served to prop up men’s vision of themselves, a perspective clearly being eroded, if ever solid or secure, by the challenge of feminism.
Moreover, if a man is to secure a position of power in the current environment, he must become more collegial and less independent, more communicative, and less of a lone wolf, and more comfortable with ideas and technical intricacies than maintenance of physical strength. In short, the masculine must adapt and adopt more of the characteristics traditionally ascribed to women in order to navigate not only school, but the work environment. All this while testosterone trumpets “action!” and boys seek an identity separate from that pretty blonde with long hair a couple of rows over.
Thus the absence of boys in my group of College Bound Scholars. Even with the incentive of tuition paid, the path to college is too fraught by these shifting sands for them to see clearly a future there.
Some part of what used to be considered manly has become a bit of an anachronism. Many of our boys, particularly those who are sons or grandsons of men who worked with their hands, are adrift without clear guidance as to how to recalibrate their self-image, as individuals and as a gender.
The fracture of other parts of the social contract also has played a destabilizing role. In a balance between structure and flexibility a parent provides appropriate boundaries, but also gives the child room to grow and learn on his own. The child learns over time to incorporate the parental boundaries into his own personality structure – that is, learns his own self-control – which allows him to direct his own further growth.
The frontal cortex in boys, the seat of self-control, develops more slowly than in girls, and is not fully mature in males until around the age of 25. (Some of us wonder if we’ve ever matured!) Because of this biology, boys are relatively more and longer in need of structure by their parents, and by extension society as a whole.
The role of such appropriate authority has been under an attack from which it has not yet recovered. In the prop wash of these assaults, the authority of parents, of teachers, and well-meaning adults in general has been undermined, and boys in particular who are not ready to guide themselves are molded academically too loosely by the cultural byways around them.
Where in the fifties at least, boys were more likely to attend to their studies in school out of fear of authority, by the turn of the 21st century that authority had lost faith in itself, and boys who needed structure found no consequences it was worth their while to honor when they essentially refused to toe the much weaker line being provided.
In a parallel issue, the rise of the diagnosis “attention deficit disorder” is, I think, directly related to the breakdown of the old authority that helped contain active boy behavior.
The breakdown of structure has been abetted somewhat by the rise of single parent, usually female, households. The lack of an engaged father, particularly for adolescent males, has been a pivotal blow to those kids’ need for structure. In corollary, the rise of the proportion of lower income households has further undermined parental ability to provide guidance, not because they don’t care or love their kids, but because such parents (again likely single parents) devote a high proportion of their time and energies just to put bread on the table.
Left to their own devices, my potential male College Bound Scholars simply could not and would not discipline themselves to get the grades and the credits and learn the college application process as required to earn the free tuition.
Amid the disorganization of the school reform movement is evidence of some successful interventions that might well be replicated more widely. For example, in isolated instances mentors of both sexes have been salving the ravages of cultural change on boys. The promise of free college tuition, as in the College Bound Scholars program, does work with young women and some number of young men. And, ironically, the drills of direct instruction dismissed in some sectors as too mindless, may herald a return to a kind of effective structure in schools.
In another structural breakdown, American political life cannot muster the collective will to bring consistent remedy to these essentially cultural issues, yet debates rage on with “passionate intensity.”
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