Why do girls outperform boys in school? This is a question many people thought would never be asked. Women continue to lag behind men in pay, are far less likely to attain corporate and political positions of power, continue to perform the bulk of childcare and household chores, and are more likely to be victims of domestic violence. But despite these inequalities, over the past several years young women have made remarkable gains in education and are now surpassing young men in high school grades, achievement test scores, college enrollment, and college graduation. Even in math, a domain that once gave Barbie a panic attack, girls have made steady gains on boys (although – sorry Barbie – boys still do hold an advantage in math test scores).
Instead of being celebrated, however, commentators instantly turned the progress of girls into a zero-sum game that signaled the troubles of boys. Many authors trumpeted a “boy crisis,” or even a “war against boys” in schools. Some education reformers now urge schools to better adapt to the putative natural impulsivity of boys. This sometimes includes perplexing solutions such as turning the classroom temperature lower or the lights brighter.
My book Learning the Hard Way is a sociological investigation into the gender gap in education. In it, I attempt to cut through the hyperbole surrounding boys’ underperformance in school by talking to students themselves and trying to see education from their point of view. I conducted ethnographic research in two high schools, one urban and one rural, over one and a half school years. I sat in classrooms, hung out in halls, and interviewed students, teachers, counselors, and administrators. My findings revealed two crucial points about the gender gap. First, the gap is not simply about gender, but instead how gender interacts with other factors such as economic class, race, and geographic location. It is boys who feel powerless due to poverty, racial inequality, or living in marginalized rural or urban communities, who are most at risk. Second, boys’ underachievement is not a reversal of gender inequality, but an outcome of that very inequality, as boys flout school in an effort to establish their power as men.
I observed boys’ ambivalence toward schooling in both locations. Although boys did not devalue getting good grades and high test scores per se, they did devalue the work required for high achievement. Boys viewed following rules and academic requirements as something more common for girls. Boys affected a carefree, unruffled attitude toward academic requirements (which I call contrived carelessness): forgetting their books, neglecting their homework, and bragging about not studying for tests. They eschewed school regulations, playing the clown in classes and getting into trouble. They used fighting and school sports to test and parade their physical prowess. Boys did all this to affirm their masculinity and project the toughness, risk-taking, and bravado associated with manhood. Such affirmations of masculine power took on special significance in these communities beset by high male unemployment and social marginalization. But these strategies of masculinity were antithetical to strategies for academic success. While some boys could spurn academic work and still perform adequately, more found out that reliance on a “photographic memory” (which some boys told me they possessed) is not a viable test-taking strategy.
But who is to blame for the underachievement of boys, the boys who are not trying in school or the world that is not trying to help? My point in the book is that the boys were merely exhibiting behaviors consistent with cultural messages about masculinity. They wanted to see themselves as superior to all things associated with girls and weaker boys. Schoolwork did not provide resources to attain this goal; academic striving was perceived as effeminate while true manliness was constituted on the football field or in the raw physicality of a fight. As one of the boys I interviewed said: “I think it’s a lot easier for girls to have that wanna get a good grade spirit. And wanna get their grades up and go to college. Girls don’t think about fighting or think about hard work.” Schools need to help disadvantaged boys so they do not see tough masculinity as one of their only sources of power and freedom. Like their female counterparts, boys can use education as a helpful (albeit flawed) path beyond economic insecurity and gender constraint. But their actions result from a confluence of complex, overlapping systems of inequality which includes not only gender but also class and race. The culprit is the consistent message that men should be dominant and invulnerable, which causes men (and boys) who lack social power to find personal power in deleterious ways. This sad and ironic outcome of gender inequality is the real “boy crisis.”
By Edward W. Morris on his book, Learning the Hard Way: Masculinity, Place, and the Gender Gap in Education, reviewed in the December 2013 issue of Gender & Society. You can find the review here.