"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Boys' Rights and the Gender Segregation Movement

With re-subordination of women one of the chief planks of the right-wing socio-political agenda, it is not surprising to see the use of pop psychologists and huckster-theorists to justify the spread of schools segregated by gender. Take this one line from a long piece in The Detroit Free Press as an example of non-scientific mush that provides the rationale for turning back the gender clock to the 19th Century:
. . . The research Strean cites shows that boys tend to be right-brain dominant, making them better able to deal with spatial thinking and more mechanically inclined. Testosterone tends to make them more aggressive and competitive.

In girls, the left brain, which deals with verbal skills, tends to be dominant. Physiological differences, research shows, also make girls' brains more inclined to regulate anger and aggression and more involved with emotion and memory.. . .

If your crap detector hasn't gone off yet, you'd better check your batteries. According to the emerging orthodoxy, girls are perfectly suited to the testing factories and the intellectual and behavioral chain gangs that we have converted schools into, but boys need environments where their juiced cerebellums can put them into action, rather than passivity.

For an antidote to this stupidity, have a look here at Jaana Goodrich's short piece from American Prospect 10/22/06:

REMEMBER TITLE IX, THE FEDERAL LEGISLATION that guarantees equality by sex in education? It was passed in 1972, on the heels of racial integration, and with a rather similar rationale: Separate was not deemed to be equal either in law or in educational outcomes. By 1995, only three sex-segregated public schools remained.

Fast forward to September 2006, and what do you find? More than 40 totally sex-segregated public schools and another 200 with sex-segregated classes in topics other than sex education or sports. What happened? Have we backpedaled on gender equality in education?

Conservatives would say that we have gone too far in the other direction. Christine Hoff-Sommers regards the coeducational classrooms as battlefields and boys as the losers of these battles. A new movement advocating more single-sex schools explains why: biological determinism. According to pop psychologists Michael Gurian and Leonard Sax, prophets of this movement, girls and boys have such inherently different brains that they must be educated separately. Boys, from Mars, thrive on hierarchical structure, abstract thought, and stress. Girls, from Venus, thrive in relaxed situations (take off those shoes), do best with very concrete examples, and can't take stress. Sax wants teachers to yell at boys and to provide sofas for girls. Because of the blue and pink brains, you know.

Too bad that the scientific evidence underlying these recommendations is unclear at best and nonexistent at worst. Mark Liberman, on the Web site Language Log, takes apart some of the bad science Sax uses in his popular book Why Gender Matters. He also points out that any average sex differences in learning styles are small and swamped by individual variations within each sex. Likewise, Janet Hyde of the University of Wisconsin reviewed 46 meta-analyses of sex differences in cognition and found the two sexes more similar than different, and a recent international study of single-sex schools failed to show them outperforming coed schools for either boys or girls. A study by Education Sector, a Washington-based think tank, found that on average, boys are doing just fine, with increasing test scores and more college degrees, though low-income boys deserve more help.

If this is true, where did the idea of a boy crisis come from? From sloppy research and our discomfort with the idea of girls doing even better, the study answers. Those supporting single-sex schools these days have modeled their campaign on the Title IX effort of three decades ago: They claim that the coeducational school system is discriminatory--but this time the victims are male. Just consider the list of Gurian's recent publications: The Minds of Boys, The Wonder of Boys, The Wonder of Girls, The Good Son, and What Stories Does My Son Need. Sax's new book, to be published in 2007, is Boys Adrift: What's Really Behind the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys. Single-sex schools are expected to solve this so-called boy crisis in education.

So far, the Bush administration has been all too eager to apply itself to this conservative crisis. Thus, in 2004, it proposed changes to the way Title IX can be interpreted within the No Child Left Behind program, and it is also offering funds for school districts wishing to experiment with single-sex education. (States from Louisiana to Michigan have expressed interest.) We are soon to hear more about these new interpretations. If they become funding guidelines, it would be perfectly OK for a school district to offer a single-sex option as long as the other sex is offered something "substantially" equal. As far as I know, nobody knows what "substantially" means here, and that is the worry. Would it be "substantially" equal to offer one gender smaller class sizes and more teachers than the other sex? What about offering the two genders different content in their classes, perhaps based on unscientific stereotypes about boys and girls?

None of this probably bothers the Republican Party's socially conservative base. Social conservatives already view gender roles as innately determined and single-sex schools fit admirably into their sexual abstinence agenda. Neither are conservative anti-feminists likely to be upset over these developments: Anything that pokes a finger in the eye of second-wave feminists with their claims of equal treatment for girls and boys is fun for this group.

No, it's for the rest of us to worry whether separate can ever mean equal. Poor Title IX. How low you have fallen.

For a more extensive smackdown of the "imperiled male theory," see Michael Kimmel's excellent piece in Dissent, who points out that, where education really counts (the Ivys), males still dominate. Here is the heart of Kimmel's argument:

. . . .If boys are doing worse, whose fault is it? To many of the current critics, it's women's fault, either as feminists, as mothers, or as both. Feminists, we read, have been so successful that the earlier "chilly classroom climate" has now become overheated to the detriment of boys. Feminist-inspired programs have enabled a whole generation of girls to enter the sciences, medicine, law, and the professions; to continue their education; to imagine careers outside the home. But in so doing, these same feminists have pathologized boyhood. Elementary schools are, we read, "anti-boy"-emphasizing reading and restricting the movements of young boys. They "feminize" boys, forcing active, healthy, and naturally exuberant boys to conform to a regime of obedience, "pathologizing what is simply normal for boys," as one psychologist puts it. Schools are an "inhospitable" environment for boys, writes Christina Hoff Sommers, where their natural propensities for rough-and-tumble play, competition, aggression, and rambunctious violence are cast as social problems in the making. Michael Gurian argues in The Wonder of Boys, that, with testosterone surging through their little limbs, we demand that they sit still, raise their hands, and take naps. We're giving them the message, he says, that "boyhood is defective." By the time they get to college, they've been steeped in anti-male propaganda. "Why would any self-respecting boy want to attend one of America's increasingly feminized universities?" asks George Gilder in National Review. The American university is now a "fluffy pink playpen of feminist studies and agitprop 'herstory,' taught amid a green goo of eco-motherism ..."

Such claims sound tinnily familiar. At the turn of the last century, cultural critics were concerned that the rise of white-collar businesses meant increasing indolence for men, whose sons were being feminized by mothers and female teachers. Then, as now, the solutions were to find arenas in which boys could simply be boys, and where men could be men as well. So fraternal lodges offered men a homo-social sanctuary, and dude ranches and sports provided a place where these sedentary men could experience what Theodore Roosevelt called the strenuous life. Boys could troop off with the Boy Scouts, designed as a fin-de-si├Ęcle "boys' liberation movement." Modern society was turning hardy, robust boys, as Boy Scouts' founder Ernest Thompson Selon put it, into "a lot of flat chested cigarette smokers with shaky nerves and doubtful vitality." Today, women teachers are once again to blame for boys' feminization. "It's the teacher's job to create a classroom environment that accommodates both male and female energy, not just mainly female energy," explains Gurian.

WHAT'S WRONG with this picture? Well, for one thing, it creates a false opposition between girls and boys, assuming that educational reforms undertaken to enable girls to perform better hinder boys' educational development. But these reforms-new classroom arrangements, teacher training, increased attentiveness to individual learning styles-actually enable larger numbers of boys to get a better education. Though the current boy advocates claim that schools used to be more "boy friendly" before all these "feminist" reforms, they obviously didn't go to school in those halcyon days, the 1950s, say, when the classroom was far more regimented, corporal punishment common, and teachers far more authoritarian; they even gave grades for "deportment." Rambunctious boys were simply not tolerated; they dropped out.

Gender stereotyping hurts both boys and girls. If there is a zero-sum game, it's not because of some putative feminization of the classroom. The net effect of the No Child Left Behind Act has been zero-sum competition, as school districts scramble to stretch inadequate funding, leaving them little choice but to cut noncurricular programs so as to ensure that curricular mandates are followed. This disadvantages "rambunctious" boys, because many of these programs are after-school athletics, gym, and recess. And cutting "unnecessary" school counselors and other remedial programs also disadvantages boys, who compose the majority of children in behavioral and remedial educational programs. The problem of inadequate school funding lies not at feminists' door, but in the halls of Congress. This is further compounded by changes in the insurance industry, which often pressure therapists to put children on medication for ADHD rather than pay for expensive therapy.

Another problem is that the frequently cited numbers are misleading. More people-that is, males and females-are going to college than ever before. In 1960, 54 percent of boys and 38 percent of girls went directly to college; today the numbers are 64 percent of boys and 70 percent of girls. It is true that the rate of increase among girls is higher than the rate of increase among boys, but the numbers are increasing for both.

The gender imbalance does not obtain at the nation's most elite colleges and universities, where percentages for men and women are, and have remained, similar. Of the top colleges and universities in the nation, only Stanford sports a fifty-fifty gender balance. Harvard and Amherst enroll 56 percent men, Princeton and Chicago 54 percent men, Duke and Berkeley 52 percent, and Yale 51 percent. In science and engineering, the gender imbalance still tilts decidedly toward men: Cal Tech is 65 percent male and 35 percent female; MIT is 62 percent male, 38 percent female. . . .


  1. When I hear about the "boy crisis" and the obvious stereotypes that it invokes, I cringe in disbelief. How can 1950's stereotypes still be so prevalent? Thank you for showing how misleading and deceptive the arguments are for the "boy crisis". Womenstake.org also has a post debunking the myths touted to support the idea of a "boy crisis" if you're interested.

  2. I agree, Erica. We've come so far in this world and are making new discoveries every day; yet, we still stereotype men and women based on what seems like prehistoric facts! As an FYI, the Society of Women Engineers are holding hands-on events around the nation to teach young women about technology and science. Their web site is www.swe.org if anyone is interested. At least there are people out there encouraging this line of thinking in women.

  3. Anonymous9:26 AM


    I hope the irony of your post isn't lost on readers.

    In one paragraph you state that there is no problem in encouraging boys academically, and then you state off the cuff that there is a special program with special events encouraging girls and women in education.

    Now, if you had said that it was a society for men, encouraging boys into engineering; I'd agree with you... but we know that that wouldn't really be encouraged in this day and age. What you posted just emphasizes a the very real and sexist problem that does exist.