“The traits of leadership and genius are quite distinct from the traits of conformity, the traits that our education systems are often geared towards.”

This comment was from Alastair on the post “How Could We Possibly Forget About the Boys?

It is important to recognize that this should not just be a debate about catering for all children within our education system: it should also be a debate about whether we have an education system that can cater for, nurture, and produce some of the intellectual traits that have proved to be some of the most valuable over the course of human history.

The feminized education system that many countries have been moving towards values a particular set of traits: cooperation, collaboration, quietness, sedentariness, empathy, equality, non-competitiveness, conformity, communal-focus, inclusivity, affirmation, inoffensiveness, sensitivity, non-confrontation, a downplaying of physicality, and an orientation to grades and tests. All traits that don’t meet this model tend to be stigmatized.

The ideal student in the system described above is the high-functioning conformist, the student who is totally driven by and oriented towards the system’s expectations. Such a student constantly seeks affirmation from the rewards and incentives offered by the system, and direction from the instructions and prohibitions presented by it. Such a student will ace any test with which the system presents them.

However, such students often fail to excel in the real world and even in the advanced academic world. There is a fairly simple reason for this: the traits of leadership and genius are quite distinct from the traits of conformity, the traits that our education systems are often geared towards. The traits of leadership and genius are traits such as an internalized confidence that does not depend upon external affirmation, originality, agonism, bloody-mindedness, independence of thought and spirit, creativity, inner drive, assertiveness, the mastery of one’s own feelings, a thick skin, competitiveness, nerve, a high tolerance for pain and discomfort, both your own and of others, a willingness to offend, initiative, imagination, and force of will. Look throughout history, and it is people with such traits who stand out from the crowd. The conformists are effective servants of the system, but they are not the innovators, pioneers, and leaders.

This is not to say that communally-oriented and more conformist thinkers don’t have their particular strengths over more agentic and independent thinkers, but there are good reasons why agentic and independent thinkers can be especially important to the development of any dynamic society.

In discriminating in favour of traits traditionally associated with females, and against the traits of agentic and independent thought more traditionally associated with males, our society lets one of its most important intellectual muscles atrophy. Boys and girls who are naturally independent thinkers do not find their traits fostered by our system and many will feel alienated and may disengage. Those who stick with it can end up being the high achievers at the top end, where independent thought and leadership traits can come into their own. However, there are significant casualties along the way.

I believe that we need to reharness these traits for our society’s good. We should produce an education system that values disputation and competition, develops thick skins, teaches children to fight their intellectual corner, to think independently, to argue and debate, to explore off the beaten path, to challenge and be challenged, to have the nerve to be original and nonconformist and the wit and intellect to defend such originality, to master their emotions, to find confidence and conviction within that means that they need not depend on external affirmation and direction, to earn respect, to be assertive, inventive, and persistent.

The weak and conformist minds created by our education system also threaten our freedom as a society. People on all sides today are constantly playing the ‘I’m offended’ game, in a manner that shuts down important debates and conversations, in large part because they never learned to control their feelings and argue for their beliefs. Constantly affirmed and directed by the system that nurtured them, they never learned how to deal with opposition, beyond running away in tears or name-calling. Thin-skinned people who have never been taught how to stand up to challenge and debate produce a society where public discourse and free speech have to be dramatically curtailed. Persons who have been trained to be conformists, hooked on the directions and affirmations of the systems to which they belong produce a society without nerve, but with a surplus of entitlement and resentment. If we want to create a society with a spirit of innovation, independence, freedom of speech and expression, vigorous but non-reactive public discourse, and decisive and effective leadership, we really need to start valuing other sets of traits in our education system.

Perhaps, just perhaps, such a change would benefit boys too.

photo of young man putting a skyscraper in a project of a city by Shutterstock

About the Editors

We're all in this together.


  1. Alastair says:

    A few clarifying points in response to the comments here:

    1. My focus is on the immediate context of academic work. Sports provide an outlet for many students’ competitive traits, but they do not make them part of academia itself. However, I am arguing that academic work itself should place far more emphasis upon these things. If you want to get boys particularly involved in the classroom, start to value disputation, confidence in fighting one’s ideological corner, adversarial modes of thought, verbal confrontation, originality and independence in thought, etc. My argument is that our concept of academic work has been ‘feminized’. We have abandoned the ritual combat of classical rhetoric, which really resonates with males, in many areas of our education and this rejection has left males without a form that was peculiarly suited to them and which developed and valued certain strengths for which they have an especial aptitude.

    There has been a backlash against this mode of agonistic academic discourse because women are alienated from it on many levels. As a general rule, women have less of an appetite for unforgiving rhetorical combat, and then there are the problems of traditional male honour associated with male-female combat. On average, men are generally more naturally gifted for verbal agonism, with deeper voices, more imposing bodily presence, and a greater love for ritual combat and confrontation. The normative separation between person and idea – ‘don’t take it personally’ – tends to be more pronounced in male groups than in female ones, and it should not surprise us that identity politics tends to arise primarily in the context of the latter groups, rather than the former. As classical rhetoric has been downplayed, the essay has become the primary academic form.

    The problem is that you need classical rhetoric to make society work. It definitely isn’t the only academic form, nor are its attendant virtues the only ones worth developing. Nevertheless, classical rhetoric develops peculiar strengths. Classical rhetoric forces us to toughen and sharpen our thinking to cope with sustained challenge. Classical rhetoric ruthlessly exposes weak ideas and sloppy thinking and forces people to think more rigorously and carefully. In societies where we don’t value the virtues of classical rhetoric, we are far more likely to have weak ideas protected from challenge merely because exposing their weakness would hurt people’s sensitivities. This is one of the reasons why identity politics and political correctness are such potent forces in our society.

    The virtues of classical rhetoric are foundational to free and democratic society. They are the virtues of free speech and open debate, of vigorous and challenging political discourse, of tough academic disputation, which ruthlessly exposes error. Where we lose the art and virtues of classic rhetoric people start to take things too personally, expect everyone to adapt to their inability to control their feelings and sense of being offended, seek to close down debates and challenges to their ideas or merely resort to name-calling.

    Reducing competition, agonism, and rough interaction to the outlet of sport not only abandons those who desire a more academic expression of such virtues, but also impoverishes the broader society, but leaving us largely untrained in an essential mode of discourse. Making the form of education more friendly for females is no excuse for robbing society of a form of discourse that has proved essential to our political, legal, and social interactions and freedoms for millennia, and for depreciating the natural gifts that many, especially males, might have in this area.

    2. I do not believe that these traits are simplistically gendered. However, on average, on account of forms of socialization, biological make-up, sociobiological behavioural preferences, and the like, they are more common among men. Consequently, discrimination against them will disproportionately hurt males. This said, though, we should not forget that there are many girls who lose out when such agentic and independent traits are discriminated against.

    3. I am not arguing for a ‘masculinized’ system to replace a ‘feminized’ system. Rather, I am arguing for a system that recognizes, values, provides for, and develops different forms of academic gifting. I am arguing for a system that appreciates the importance and value of different gendered forms of socialization, while also recognizing that not every member of each gender fits into such forms of socialization. I am arguing for a system that recognizes the varied gifts and modes of discourse that make for a dynamic and robust intellectual conversation in academia, society, and politics and will not abandon any of these gifts merely for the sake of a more inclusive environment. If some kids can’t hack the combative form of classical rhetoric then they should have other less confrontational forms of academic discourse open to them; what shouldn’t happen is that such forms be abandoned or denigrated for the sake of their inclusion.

    4. Project-oriented approaches wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t generally come with an insistence on a certain type of inclusive and egalitarian group formation. My experience of collaborative creative group projects has been grim, save in those contexts where one person could take a clear lead, establish a hierarchy, and people who did not perform could be excluded or made to shape up. Project-oriented education is usually heavily biased in favour of forms of group organization more generally preferred by females.

    5. While feminism may be behind some of the problems that I identify here, I suspect that far more of them can be laid at the feet of capitalism, and the involvement of the state in the education system. State involvement encourages uniform expectations on all students, as models of social engineering determine our approach. The performance of students must be rendered both measurable and commensurable for such purposes, which leads to an emphasis on grades and tests, and the valuing of conformist traits over all others. One cannot so easily measure creativity and independence of mind. The education system starts to follow a more industrial model, and loses sight of the humanist values of agonism and rhetoric. When driven by the demands of the economy and the stability of the political and social order, states will generally have a natural preference for developing conformist traits over agentic ones.

    6. My focus was on the ‘virtues’ highlighted by such systems. The systems place a lot of emphasis upon the importance of cooperation and collaboration and value these things highly. They place much less value and emphasis upon developing the virtues of independence and competition. Working alone in fulfilment of the system’s expectations, which are uniformly placed upon every student, is not independence.

    7. Bullying and cliques are definitely an everyday reality for many students. However, the system completely sets itself such things, valuing the opposing position of a community in which all are completely included and affirmed. What is forgotten is that rougher play – which can become bullying in more extreme cases – is an important form of socialization for many boys. Boys often respond to situations where they are not merely included and given acceptance and affirmation as a matter of course, but have to struggle to win respect and earn their place. Competitive, challenging, and tough environments are important for boys who have a need to prove themselves and gain self-confidence through challenge. The inclusive and affirming environment really does not cater to the needs of huge numbers of boys in this area and so they will seek self-worth elsewhere. One of the ways to curb bullying would be to create tougher educational forms of socialization, within which those who need such environments to gain identity and self-worth can find it in ways that do not involve abuse of weaker parties, who probably need different forms of socialization. The current tendency to stigmatize and stop all ‘rough play’ and to see such environments purely from the perspective of the weakest members of a group fails to recognize how valuable such environments can be for many. As it is rough play now occurs purely outside of the system in unsupervised, unauthorized, and unguided forms. This is not healthy.

    8. Sports may be important in most schools, but the body is largely sedentary and inactive in the classroom. More moving around would benefit many boys, as would a greater appreciation for bodily assertion. The body is also a powerful tool of thought and reason, if you know how to use it correctly. Males generally have natural advantages in the areas of oratory, with deeper and more powerful voices, more imposing bodily presence, and the like. These factors are rather important when it comes to leadership, and people should be trained how to use them.

    9. It needs to be underlined again that I am talking about the educational system, not the broader environment of schools, which involves not just the influence of the system, but also that of peers and their socialization groups. My argument is that the system is feminized. However, this feminization of education often leads to an ugly masculinist reaction in male socialization groups. As the system does not value masculine traits, unsupervised socialization groups become the contexts where these traits are emphasized, inculcated, and valued. On account of the feminization of the system, many students can be exposed to macho groups developing in reaction against it, which create an oppressive and bullying gender policing atmosphere. Boys become disaffected by education and start to identify with the male socialization groups that develop in reaction to it. Academic achievement and commitment to the system is perceived to be something for ‘sissies’ and so they disengage.

  2. Quadruple A says:

    Perhaps if a more cooperative and project oriented approach to education became commonplace the male students would have their need to be proactive met. The sit down environment might be more detrimental to male students but I don’t see that as having to do with the femininity of the sit down environment at least not with regard to the traits that he lists.

    I don’t think that conformity is a “soft” value. If anything it is a “hard” value because it promotes an inflexible attitude and intolerance toward difference.

  3. Quadruple A says:

    The claim made by some social critics that we live in a “feminized” society is outrageously belies how our society really functions.

    “The feminized education system that many countries have been moving towards values a particular set of traits: cooperation, collaboration, quietness, sedentariness, empathy, equality, non-competitiveness, conformity, communal-focus, inclusivity, affirmation, inoffensiveness, sensitivity, non-confrontation, a downplaying of physicality, and an orientation to grades and tests. All traits that don’t meet this model tend to be stigmatized.”

    Cooperation and Collaboration: While once in a while students are made to work in groups the truth of the matter is that student are usually an isolated island that does most of their work alone-although the lucky ones can get help from their parents and friends.

    “communal-focus, inclusivity, affirmation:” – For many students bullying and cliques are an everyday reality rather than inclusivity and affirmation.

    “A downplay of physicality”:Sports are considered very important in most schools.

    An orientation toward grades and test: You got this part right.

    ” All traits that don’t meet this model tend to be stigmatized.”: This is so untrue. If anything anybody who doesn’t meet up to “masculine” standards is stigmatized.

    I suspect if a so called “feminized” society or educational system were actually tried that it would do wanders but we shouldn’t knock a cultural environment that we haven’t even begun to pursue.

    • As a 17 year old student currently in the system, I can tell you that you’re basically wrong/out of touch with how things really are in 2012.

    • I actually agree with about 90% of the OP. If you honestly feel that school is not a more feminine environment, you couldn’t be further from the truth. It is quite clear the boys are underperforming academically as the environment continues to shift to favour “girl” (air quotes to prevent offense by offering a wide definition — see, even I’m afraid to offend!) behaviours over traditionally male behaviours, which may be more physical and aggressive even if they are harmless in the long run. The numbers have been coming in for quite some time re: how we are failing young boys and young men in terms of education and socialization, you just need to do the research.

      Casting this as a gender issue really distracts from the main point, however, which is that “softer, and more conformist” attitudes are being promoted over “distracting, aggressive, ‘acting-out'” behaviours.

      Sure, sometimes being a yelling lout as a kid is pointless. Sometimes, however, the kid is right. Further, sometimes the loud or obstinate child is not only correct, but quite incisive in this truth. Stifling that under the guise of “feelings” or “self-esteem” or “inoffense” leads to intellectual stagnation and a blunting of the natural intelligence of individuals.

Speak Your Mind