Richard Whitmire is the author of Why Boys Fail
Over the past decade hundreds of articles and scores of book have chronicled the "boy troubles," the odd phenomenon of boys failing in school and men adrift in life.
That is so yesterday's story.
Today's story is about what happens to women when men fail, and the storytellers are women. Look no further than the highly publicized The End of Men and the Rise of Women, by Hanna Rosin. Rosin's book followed The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family, by Liza Mundy.
Why shouldn't women be the ones to write about the world of failing men? Women actually read books (checked out the men's versus women's section in your local bookstore lately?).
Rosin and Mundy certainly get all the facts right about how the demise of men affects women, but I'm not sure they get it right about what caused this dilemma. More to the point, there's never a hint from these authors that this male reversal might be reversible.
Let’s start with The End of Men, which is packed with beautifully crafted narratives about the rapidly rising fortunes of women and what this means for their (often hapless) boyfriends and husbands—if, that is, they deign to even bother with male companionship.
Rosin’s worked can be summed up as plastic women and cardboard men. That means women are proving themselves flexible enough to bend with the fast-changing market forces, while cardboard-like men keep waiting in vain for the return of the economy that once favored them. She’s right about that.
Mundy covers much of the same women-are-taking-over ground, only from a more touchy-feely, optimistic perspective. She seems very, very sure that all this is going to turn out well. Men really will adjust to their lesser status. They really will start to do more housework. They really will start separating whites from darks as they do the daily laundry.
According to Mundy, life as we know it has “flipped” as women land the great paying jobs. Men may fumble around looking for the next best thing, but a “new masculinity,” where men adjust to their diminished status, saves the day. Plastic women, plastic men.
Where I differ with Rosin and Mundy is over their skimpy analysis of what caused all this. Both writers leave readers with the impression that vast, immutable economic upheavals are the cause of these setbacks for men.
My reporting, in contrast, led to a trigger that is both discrete and reversible. Roughly 20 years ago, national leaders launched an education reform movement designed to steer more students to college. It was the right thing to do, and the first step was pushing stiffer literacy skills into the earlier grades. After all, the common denominator of any college class, whether history or biology, is the ability to read and write quickly and accurately.
So how’s that reform turning out?
The U.S. Department of Education recently gave us a partial answer. At the eighth grade level, 37 percent of girls scored proficient or above in writing, compared with 18 percent of boys. On the surface those reforms appeared perfect. Educators properly ramped up literacy skills in the youngest grades. To make sure everyone was keeping up, they set up accountability systems based on race, ethnicity and income.
What got left out of the accountability formula? Gender.
Any parent knows that boys pick up literacy skills later than girls. When boys get slammed with early academic demands they can’t handle they tune out. They assume school is for girls and move on to more interesting activities, such as video games (which then unfairly garner all the blame).
Schools should have adjusted their teaching methods so that boys could succeed at these new literacy skills. But they didn’t. State and federal education officials should have included gender in their accountability systems so that warning lights would flash early and often. But they didn’t.
So now we’re stuck with an education system where many males end up in their senior year of high school unprepared and unmotivated for college work. And we’re surprised about the scarcity of males on the campuses of community colleges and four-year colleges? We’re surprised that college-educated women are taking over field after field?
This one trigger can’t account for all male setbacks. Global economic changes truly are huge players. But if educators adjusted their early-grades literacy practices, a lot more boys would arrive in 12th grade prepared and motivated to compete in the new economy. What educators have done can be un-done.
It’s at least worth a try.
This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.