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Soraya Chemaly Headshot

"Boy Crisis" in Education Is a Microcosm of Women's Lives

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An interesting coincidence: In Friday's New York Times, David Brooks, using Shakespeare's Henry V to illustrate his point, wrote the latest "boy crisis" in education cri de coeur and I hurt my foot at the gym.

In decrying the hotly debated plight of boys in education, Brooks patiently explains that schools need more diversity and "have to engage people as they are." The irony of this argument as the basis for Brooks' castigating the education system "as a distinct subculture" that hurts boys is so glaring that I offer here a link to protective sun visors worn by astronauts to avoid space blindness.

Boys that don't fit "distinct school subcultures" that are not optimized for them? A subculture created as a result of gender stereotypes and sexism and an irrational commitment to complementarianism? Teaching was usually considered an extension of mothering -- the right role for women and not men -- who, after all, still only deign to enter lower-paying "womens' fields" in time of dire economic need. Putting aside for the moment the question of which boys exactly, Brooks' description of boys' woes in school sounds like girls' and women's experiences in all of life after the age of five. Culture is not optimized for girls and women and the "boy crisis" is a symptom.

Consider my sneakers. I pay the same amount for a gym membership as male members. I forgot my shoes at home so I "chose" to wear one of the eight loaners available -- all men's -- with three pairs of socks, even though this impaired my ability to run and I hurt my foot. Very first world worry, I know. An irritating, inconsequential adaptation to an assumption of a male norm that no one thought about. However, most of the ways that girls and women are expected to "fit" to a male standard -- essentially the issue as David Brooks sees it in reverse -- are not so easily dismissed. They are expensive, difficult and sometimes lethal. Some quick and obvious examples:

  • More women have died and until recently have been more at risk for suffering injuries in car crashes because all crash test dummies until roughly 2003 were male dummies. Women died because the standard for testing safety was men and they didn't fit.
  • Women's army uniforms don't fit them -- they are "unisex" which means they are for men. This is not an inconsequential fact for women service members since the ill-fit includes body armor, for example, or kneepads that cover their shins.
  • Health care and insurance -- don't even get me started on how male body norms set the standard for all humans and the many ways women, in terms of health care, insurance and money, have until recently literally paid for deviating from it. Being a woman is NOT a preexisting condition despite what some would have you believe.
  • Everything costs more -- yes -- women pay more for a huge array of products and services, everything from dry cleaning to car repair, simply because they are NOT men. It's legal and we put up with it, god only knows why. Probably because we are so immersed in the culture that exists that we don't question why men's products and services are considered the baseline and women's exceptions. By and large, we all ignore this information or don't believe the evidence that clearly exists.
  • Work, pay and work/life "balance. Take the situation faced by boys in school, gender reverse it and exponentially explode it and you might get a hint of what it is like for women in the U.S. workplace, a shiny, well-tended temple dedicated to the 1950s ideal male single-breadwinner. Teaching is not gender diverse because we have a segregated workforce.

Is this a "woman crisis"? The world is calibrated for male success and women pay for not fitting in every day. This is not to diminish the need to provide educational environments in which boys thrive. Clearly it is important that we do. But, if there is a "boy crisis" in the subculture of school, it is for reasons cited below, a symptom of the "woman crisis" in mainstream culture.

Boys in school, Brooks explains, "don't fit the ethos [so] get left out." What on earth does he think happens to girls when they grow up and enter the wide world? It seems to me that by not even mentioning the wider culture that the educational subculture is part of Mr. Brooks is confusing a temporary loss of privilege with oppression.

We will get nowhere in helping children in schools and adults in life by highlighting and exacerbating gender differences and everywhere by considering how cultivating cross-gender empathy in very young children has the power to alter long term structural obstacles to change, including those in our economy. A major problem is that our culture continues to tell boys that they will have power and resources by virtue of their gametes and that "women's issues" are not central human issues -- even when a rapidly changing world tells them otherwise. Boys continue to be told they will grow up to define the norm because that is what we tell themthough media, institutions, acculturation. This is why, for example, I find Brooks' use of Henry V to define his argument illustrative of my point: Yes, it is the ultimate band of brothers play. But, surely there must be an example of male honor and boy behavior that does not casually trade in women-are-property and land-is-woman rape analogies ("Once more into the breach..."), where the concerns of practically the only woman in the play are completely meaningless. How do you use this context to argue that boys are being marginalized and that diversity in school administrative culture is what we need?

Which brings us to Brooks' Henry V whom he places in a contemporary school where he will suffer from being a rambunctious rule-breaker. Mr. Brooks' article ends with school. But what happens after?

Despite his rebellion and his outcast-laddie-lifestyle, like most boys, Bonnie Prince Hal nonetheless feels pretty good about himself. Why isn't poor academic performance affecting boys' confidence? This is important because a lot of boys feel that they don't need school and there must be a reason.

1) Acculturation. We still live in a culture that still that immersively delights in using "girl" as a laugh-a-minute insult. In addition to being taught that to be a girl is literally humiliating, boys, often described as a "handful" get a lot of pointed attention and feedback. They learn that "if you just apply yourself/try harder" you can succeed. Girls? They are praised for their "goodness" not for their effort or ability. The very qualities that boys have that cause them problems academically are those that generate constructive feedback and confidence and enable them to succeed professionally.

2) "Boy entitlement." Studies show the degree to which boys feel unearned confidence in their abilities, whereas girls feel the need to overcompensate just to be able to participate in school and the economy. He is NOT being repeatedly told to "over-deliver" or that his success is a buzzkill for the women around him.

Acculturation, boy entitlement and the education crisis that boys find themselves in go hand in hand and, until we deal with them, we'll all trudge along on a dusty, circular, well-trod path of gender essentialism.

But Brooks does not discuss boys' unbounded confidence or life for Henry after school where Henry will probably get a job in a higher-paying male-dominated sector. A third coincidence: The jobs report came out on the same day. Academic achievement and performance, to our detriment, are primarily now associated with work and its rewards. And yet, a girl's ROI on her educational investment is lower than a boy's regardless of performance. According to a recent study conducted at Georgetown University in the aggregate, for women to make what men with high school degrees makes, they have to get college degrees. In order to make the same amount of money in adulthood, girls have work longer in school and pay more for school. Once out of school boys and girls move from subject segregated academics to a gendered segregated workforce where men have power and lifetime gender wage gaps persist. In life, men rule and women, despite gains, are stuck at 17 percent of leadership, in some sectors a decline. If I were a boy, this would be evident -- both undermining (why work too hard if you don't have to) and a source of confidence.

It is relevant to children's ambitions, performance and expectations that the stories we tell are overwhelmingly boys' and men's stories told by boys and men. Isn't it relevant, too, that that our public spaces, history books, damn -- even our currency -- remain filled with tales and images of masculine success? Or that men rule ubiquitously in defiance of a prolonged period of female academic achievement? Or that that the impact of academic achievement on lifetime wages and security for women is massively attenuated because of gender, etc. etc.

There is a reason why the peak age for female ambition in this country is EIGHT. That's precisely when girls and boys leave the overwhelmingly female space of domestic life and come face-to-face with a public culture increasingly not interested in embracing the accomplishments of women unless they are wearing g-strings and posing as the flavor of the day. For every accomplished woman in the world there are thousands of images of others servicing men's needs. It is also the time when boys start to perceive their overwhelming cultural dominance. School may seen like a gender hostile environment to Brooks et al (boys feeling physically constrained in school, their performance impaired, etc.) But, the world is a pretty gender-hostile place for women. And, I don't care how many books get sold because of controversial names like The End of Men and The Richer Sex. Get back to me when I no longer have to explain to my nephews why doing something "like a girl" is not an insult, we've closed the lifetime wage gap, I can run at night in the same places my husband safely can and one in five women are not raped.

If there is a small space or a time during an estimated lifetime when girls have a respite from the relentless erosion of the valuing of the feminine or the recognition of the accomplishments of females we have to make sure that we NIP IT IN THE BUD so boys can be more comfortable?

No one wants children of either gender to fail or have negative school experiences. What I dislike about arguments like Brooks' are that they pretend that things like boys' performances, their cultural entitlement, gendered expectations and the economics of gender over lifetimes are unrelated, when they are not. Of course we need to make sure boys' educational experiences are the best they can possibly be. But we cannot solve this problem by highlighting and addressing gender differences. We have to actually consider gender similarities and how we dismantle the various forms of culturally-mandated segregation that occur in every facet of the larger culture. You want more male teachers and educational environments that meet the needs of all types of students? I want fair pay, more female leaders and workplace and political environments that do the same thing. Until you dismantle extreme, gender power imbalances from which you benefit in the mainstream culture, you cannot isolate solving problems in the ones that ill serve you in its derivative subculture.

As the mother of three and a former child myself, I know that they will expend the least amount of energy possible. Children have nothing to do but absorb culture and do what they think they will be rewarded for. Even unconsciously children get it and act accordingly -- boys included. This has nothing to do with honor codes and everything to do with power structures and who benefits from them.