Sunday, February 17, 2013

Allowing Boys To Be Boys

A boy carries out suggestions more wholeheartedly when he understands their aim.  
Robert Baden-Powell [1857-1941], 
British officer, writer & founder of the Scout movement

Close your eyes,
Have no fear,
The monsters gone,
He's on the run and your daddy's here,
Beautiful, beautiful,
Beautiful Boy.

—John Lennon [1940-80],
English singer/songwriter, in "Beautiful Boy"

Sex Differences: In Shakespeare's comedy, Much Adoe about Nothing (1600), the Bard intimately  understood the differences between the sexes better than many of today's academics.

Among pedagogues there has been, of late, a great amount of hand-wringing on how in the primary grades boys are falling behind girls in the so-called soft subjects like reading and articulation. The articles in mainstream media, have such provocative headlines as Failing boys and the powder keg of sexual politics (by Carolyn Abraham); Young boys "turned off books" by by lack of male teachers (Graeme Paton); and Why Boys Are Failing in an Educational System Stacked against Them (by Lori Day).

No doubt all these articles are full of good intentions and raise important points about teaching methods today, including the "feminization" of the classroom, notably in the early grades.  But that has always been the case; elementary or primary grade teachers have long been female; it certainly was the case when I attended elementary school in the 1960s (and long before then), and I held interest in both sciences and reading, influenced in many cases by the female teachers who taught me. 

It's interesting to note that the first article's writer, in this case, Carolyn Abraham, fails to notice that in math and sciences, boys tend to outrank girls across all cultures when they become older. In an OECD report of test results for 15-year-olds, generally students in Grade 9, the results were consistent:
In mathematics the boys score higher than the girls in the majority of the countries except in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway and Poland where the advantage for boys is not significant, and in Iceland where the girls outperform the boys.
There are sound valid explanations for such findings, namely, that boys as a group are more interested in math and sciences and girls in reading and language, and equally important they as a group mature later. Even so, the article ignores this finding, and with much puzzlement, usually compare the test scores of girls and boys, today and, say, 20 years ago. Lest I have to remind journalists and school teachers, when you make a comparison or ranking of two groups, someone has to be first, and someone has to be second.

While teaching styles and the current feminization of the classroom undoubtedly contributes somewhat to boys showing more interest in the subjects of science and math than reading and language, other more important factors, which evolutionary sciences has shown, are at play. These are strong biological and genetic forces, which scare a lot of people. This might come as a shock to some educators, but boys are different than girls in many ways.

And the differences are not so much socialization as genetic. Of course, socialization might play some role later on in some respects, but boys and girls are born with innate differences that socialization can never change.

Boys Just Want To Have Fun: Schoolboys in Nakempte, Western Oromia region of Ethiopia.
Photo Credit: Mexikids: Tim & Annette Gulick, 2005
Source: Flickr
Anyone who has children will see the differences at a young age, even with infants and toddlers. I have three children: an adult girl, and two boys. My daughter (20) was adequate in math and science, but excelled in reading, languages and literature. She shows interest in writing, in which I think she'll do very well. My boys, one school-aged (8), and one a toddler (2), are more mechanically and scientifically minded and show interest in how things work. My eight-year-old, for example, is fascinated with insects, and has already stated his intention of being an entomologist.

The differences are easy to see and remarkable. Ask any parent. Steven Pinker in his landmark book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002), argues that sex differences are common to all cultures:
Sex differences are not an arbitrary feature of Western culture, like the decision to drive on the left or on the right. In all human cultures, men and women are seen as having different natures. All cultures divide their labor by sex, with more responsibilities for childrearing by women and more control of the public and political realms by men. (346)
While many feminists might say that's unfair, there are sound scientific reasons for the sexual differences, says Dr. Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, who has built an edifice of fact on years of scientific findings. Although some people understand the validity of such realities, they find the results unfair, Dr. Pinker points out in further on in The Blank Slate:
But among many professional women the existence of sex differences is still a source of discomfort. As one colleague said to me, "Look, I know that males and females are not identical. I see it in my kids, I see it in myself, I know about the research. I can't explain it, but when I read claims about sex differences, steam comes out of my ears." (351)
One reason is the politics of the women's liberation movement, led by Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique (1963). In Ms. Friedan's estimation of fairness and equality, the same number of women as men should be among the academic, professional, political and economic elites. Such is called the "fairness of outcomes," an idea that is absurd and contrary to the ideals of an open, liberal western democratic state. Even if it could be imposed, which is authoritarian thinking, it would fail for the very reasons that authoritarian states always fail.

Moreover, many women want to do things other than a professional career, including the raising and nurturing of children. No doubt, the issue of sex differences has been overly politicized, resulting in much anguish for both women and men, boys and girls alike. We ought to celebrate our differences, not mourn them. Or worse, politicize them. Viva la différence!

To say there are differences in anything, including gender, is not saying one sex is better than another in all areas. That would be an absurd assumption. Let's celebrate our differences, weaknesses included. I can't hit a 90 mph fastball, although I wish I could when I was younger. Nor could I sing opera. Or make a decent soufflé. But others can, and can do it well, with style.

Politicizing the differences changes little other than, perhaps, advancing a scholar's career or publishing more controversial articles. Yet, how does it really help society? Pedagogical attempts to neutralize (emasculate might be a better word in some cases) the male sex at a young age are not the best solutions to the problems that have, and continually, plague society. Even if the pedagogues are earnest in their social engineering exercises. Well-meaning educators armed with the latest test results and studies have to look at the broader social implications of their pronouncements, as do journalists looking for a sensational story.

It will result in many other unintended problems that the educators are only starting to see today, including the marginalization of boys. At the risk of offending some noted writers and academics, there is a need to rethink their premises, or at least their ideology. After all, it's quite obvious that boys will be boys. It's that obvious. To deny that is to deny the obvious. And, as evolutionary biologists would point out, is to deny biology and good science. Even so, some will remain unconvinced of this or any argument put forward.

As for the gender crisis in education, It's a crisis (generally) manufactured for no particular purpose than to sound the alarms of despair, or, perhaps, for some organizations to get some grant money for further studies. It's an exercise in futility. In 20 years, we might be reading about another study that shows girls are falling behind boys in one academic area or another. Education is important, but looking at test scores alone is, to use a war metaphor, an easy and soft target. Eventually, most boys learn to read and write sufficiently well enough to have a job and function in society. Some become great writers and teachers.

There are more important issues, more important battles, which centre on human rights, individual liberty and dignity that need all our intellectual energy and attention at the moment. So, yes, to point out the obvious,  boys will be boys. As for the test results in the soft subjects like reading and writing, "It's much ado about nothing."

A version of this post originally appeared in Perry J Greenbaum (October 18, 2010).


  1. What is the reason for the relative success of Jews and--apparently--homosexuals? Perhaps it is because they are not macho.

    1. That is an interesting point, and one that I have also thought about. Of course, cultures and people that are violent or machismo kill off their young men, leaving little room for growth. Those that admire education, knowledge and thus advance civilization tend to do well.


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