This past week, the National Council of Teachers of English announced the winners of this year’s Promising Young Writers competition. Out of hundreds of entries, 51 8th graders from a dozen states received awards. My son, Zachary, an 8th grader at Poly Prep, in Brooklyn, was one of them. Of the eight winners from New York State, he was the only boy. In fact, there were only six boys in the entire country who were winners.
I say this not as a proud parent (though I am) but as a concerned social scientist. Many concerned educators and media pundits have decried the “boy crisis” in schools — the fact that girls are surpassing boys in college attendance (about 60 percent of entering first-year students this year are female), achievement (girls have caught up in science and math, and far outpace boys in English and language); and behaviors (boys are far more likely to be retained, suspended, diagnosed with ADHD and get into fights).
But many of the proposed remedies for this crisis have little, if any, empirical foundation. Single-sex classes for white boys tend to flatten differences among boys and teach to stereotypes that are both insulting and limiting to boys. (Proponents imagine them as Dead Poets’ Society, but they are just as likely to be Lord of the Flies.) There is some evidence that single-sex classes may have salutary effects for inner city minority boys.
Engaging more male teachers as role models may sound laudatory, but there is no evidence that sex of teacher has an independent effect on boys’ achievement.
These reforms typically rest on shaky biological foundations that boys are girls are so fundamentally different that they need Mars and Venus classrooms — with different class configurations, desk arrangements, teaching styles and even temperature settings (boys at 68 degrees Fahrenheit, girls at 72 degrees Fahrenheit).
What social scientists actually know is that the small mean differences between boys and girls on any measurable trait pale in comparison with the enormous variations among boys and among girls.
We have to ask why so few boys were selected. Some will argue that since students were nominated by their English teachers (who are usually female) the teachers simply didn’t “see” boys’ submissions as worthy of consideration in a national competition.
I think the social scientific evidence leads in a different direction. Boys’ underachievement is driven by masculinity — that is, what boys think it means to be a man is often at odds with succeeding in school. Stated most simply, many boys regard academic disengagement as a sign of their masculinity.
How little they care about school, about studying, about succeeding — these are markers of manhood in peer groups of middle and high school boys around the country.
In a brilliant ethnography, psychologist Wayne Martino observed middle school boys and girls. When he asked boys why they were doing poorly in English they said things like:
“Reading is lame, sitting down and looking at words is pathetic,” or “Most guys who like English are faggots.” Another boy noted:
I find English hard. It’s because there are no set rules for reading texts. . . English isn’t like math where you have rules on how to do things and where there are right and wrong answers. In English you have to write down how you feel and that’s what I don’t like.
Compare this to the comment of one of the girls in the same class:
I feel motivated to study English because… you have freedom in English — unlike subjects such as math and science — and your view isn’t necessarily wrong. There is no definite right or wrong answer and you have the freedom to say what you feel is right without it being rejected as a wrong answer.
It is not the school experience that “feminizes” boys, but rather the ideology of traditional masculinity that keeps boys from wanting to succeed. “The work you do here is girls’ work,” one boy commented to a different researcher. “It’s not real work.” Or, as Catharine Stimpson, Dean of the Graduate School at NYU once put it, “Real men don’t speak French.”
If we want to understand boy’s underachievement in writing, literature, and languages — if we want to understand why so few boys won this year’s Promising Young Writers award — we need look no further than the way boys perceive these subjects. We must make academic engagement a sign of manhood — which we can only do by interrupting those other voices that tell our young boys to tune out.