Last week’s issue of Newsweek featured one of those curious meldings of social commentary/biological determinism that are a staple of popular discussion on gender issues: "The Trouble with Boys." If last year brought us the great women and math debate (thanks to Harvard University President Lawrence Summers’ maladroit comments) this year it is how schools treat boys as "defective girls" – apparently the source of such woes as the fact that "boys are losing ground to girls on standardized writing tests" and that "the number of boys who said they didn’t like school rose 71 percent between 1980 and 2001" and that "thirty years ago men represented 58 percent of the undergraduate student body. Now they’re a minority of 44 percent." School is seen as a too-feminine environment, and is thus a source of torment for boys.
I always tell myself to ignore these cover stories because they are always so badly edited and sourced but like a motorist driving by a highway wreck I never seem to be able to pull my eyes away from the scene of the disaster. (In addition to factoids it would be great to have more information: What about tests other than writing? Did the numbers of girls who didn’t like school rise also, or did it stay the same or lessen? Has the age of marriage risen, leading more girls to go to college than in the past? What’s the economy been like over the past thirty years, and has that had an effect on boys’ decisions on college? I’m not saying that these are the only relevant questions or that they somehow negate the upfront claims – but would it kill the authors to provide fuller information, at least in the online version? It’s hard to make sense of the arguments otherwise).
I’m sure that this topic will resonate with lots of parents of boys who have frustrating experiences with their local schools, and I have no doubt that there are lots of valid issues in regard to why boys’ performance levels seem to be dropping. It’s just that there is so much "missing" information in between the confident assertions and the illustrative anecdotes that it is hard to get a firm grasp on what the relevant arguments are other than the claim that something is amiss and gender [and in this case, gender backed up by feminist social engineering gone horribly wrong, it seems] is to blame for it.
These gender wars stories always bring the authoritative voice of science into the mix in ways that I find passing strange. In this one boys are described as being somewhat like home science experiments -- being the physical conduits of an impressively powerful "male brain chemistry" -- which they acquired in a kind of "brain in a vat" science fiction image-y way when, beginning in the first trimesters of their lives as boy fetuses their brains were "bathe[d] in testosterone" . . . these chemical fermentations in the end result in a "hard-wired" boy brain, giving the science experiment a 21st century computer cast to it. (In addition to the chemistry and computer references, there are the obligatory evolutionary biology ones as well, looking back to our primitive beginnings that exert their relentless hold still today: "juvenile chimps" battle for "their place in the hierarchy of the tribe," facing off "against each other rather than appear weak . . . [and] like the juvenile primates they are middle-school boys" do likewise.)
The science gets handed out briskly with a definitive presentation, although towards the end of the article it was a pleasure to see our old friend, the obligatory disclaimer, put in an appearance: "scientists caution that brain research doesn’t tell the whole story: temperament, family background and environment play big roles, too." Sure they do. That’s why the second sentence after this one begins: "But . . ." (It is true that there is a sidebar with "scholar" Carol Gilligan -- identified in the caption to her picture as "an expert on girls" – offering a feminist take on the issue. She’s the one photographed in her kitchen, backed up against the counter. An interesting pictorial choice. Presumably she generates her knowledge about girls while making tea, rather than working in a laboratory or similarly serious place like those folks who are quoted in the article with scientific titles.)
And then after all the science talk that is woven through the piece, the article winds up for its big finishing pitch: "one of the most reliable predictors of whether a boy will succeed or fail in high school rests on a single question." What do you think that question is? Does it have to do with brain chemistry, or testosterone bathing, or battling to maintain your place in the hierarchy of juvenile chimpdom? That would be a no. The crucial question is: "Does [a boy] have a man in his life to look up to?" Maybe that argument should have led the article? (Or maybe some of the other issues noted in passing – the hegemony of standardized testing driving the curriculum in the last decade; the elimination or drastic reduction in recess; the increasingly media-saturated environment that exists for boys that wasn’t even on the horizon in 1980 – might have yielded more insight as well if they’d been followed up on.)
But then there is the historical amnesia that drives me nuts. One reason the Newsweek piece caught my eye is that I’m getting ready to do a unit on "childhood and science" with the students in the science and popular culture class, where one of the topics we’ll take up are science toys for kids and their historical significance. Taking a look back in time, we’ll be reading Bruce Watson’s book about A.C. Gilbert, the inventor of the erector set – and in sketching out the context for Gilbert’s engineering toys, Chapter 2 of Watson’s book describes "The Boy Problem" as seen by early 20th century Americans (the phrase comes from a popular 1901 book). The Boy Problem encompassed such difficulties as gangs, and "boys who drifted from school because the teacher was ‘down on them’. . . boys whose mothers asked them, ‘Why can’t you be more like your sister?’ but who couldn’t because they were boys" (p. 25). In fact, as Watson points out, Gilbert sold his erector sets directly to worried moms in advertisements in the pages of Good Housekeeping where he firmly proclaims that purchasing his toys "solves the boy problem."
Erector sets anyone?
For more on the Summers' controversy, see the excellent compilation of sources by the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute at the University of Wisconsin at Madison http://wiseli.engr.wisc.edu/news/Summers.htm#May16. For online information on A.C. Gilbert, see this excerpt of an article from Smithsonian: http://www.smithsonianmag.si.edu/smithsonian/issues99/may99/erector.html.
Images: The cover to Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace, 1951-1952 (Fantagraphics Books, 2005) and to Bruce Watson, The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made (Penguin, 2003).