Mark Sherman finds serious issues with Judith Warner’s assertion that “boys are doing just fine.”
I’m an angry old man. Well, I’m not that old — I’m 70, which, they say, is the new 67 — but I’m definitely angry. And when I see an article like Judith Warner’s latest in Time magazine — “Is There Really a Boy Crisis?” — I see red. Have I been wasting my life these past 20 years, virtually obsessed with the fact that boys and young men are struggling and not doing nearly as well as girls and young women, and with reading books like “The War Against Boys,” “Boys Adrift,” “Why Boys Fail,” and “The Minds of Boys”? Have all these researchers and educators been wasting their lives as well? Was Nicholas Kristof, a strong advocate for girls and women across the world, deluded when he wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times in March 2010 titled “The Boys Have Fallen Behind,” in which he says, “In the United States and other Western countries alike, it is mostly boys who are faltering at school”?
From everything I’ve seen, the problems boys are having in the U.S. are across the board; in every racial and ethnic category girls and young women are outpacing their brothers, with the most glaring example of this being college enrollments, where 57% of undergraduates are women. Looked at another way, this means that for every 100 men graduating from college, there are more than 130 women.
It doesn’t start there, of course. At every level of schooling, girls do better than boys and to say, as Warner does — citing research by sociologists Thomas DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann — that it’s been that way for at least 100 years doesn’t make it okay. Early on, Warner says,
Quietly, without anywhere near the fanfare that has greeted the claim that boys have become the weaker, worse-off sex, serious researchers have been arguing for years that boys — a lot of boys, at least — are doing just fine. That — as long as they’re white and from educated families, at least — they’re not dropping behind girls.
Okay, yes, a lot of boys aren’t dropping behind girls. No one said it was all-or-nothing. But statistically, there is absolutely no question that boys are falling behind girls. And it is across the board. However, Warner is right when she implies that the problem is far greater when boys are not white. Looking at the most recent data in the Chronicle of Higher Education, for bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2009-10, among white students the percentage earned by women was 56 percent. But for African-Americans, the percentage was 66 percent. This means that for every 100 black males graduating from college, there are 195 women; that’s nearly a 2-to-1 ratio. For Hispanics, the percentage female is nearly 61 percent.
So maybe, relatively speaking, white boys from well-off families are doing okay (though not as well as girls), but does that mean, there’s no problem? This sounds racist to me. It has been common knowledge for many years that in the black community women are doing better than men; in fact, the plight of young black males in America is beyond distressing, whether you are looking at school performance, joblessness, homicide rates, or incarceration. If the statistics for young white males were anything near that of blacks, this problem would be front page news every day.
And remember that in the early 1990s, when the women’s movement began to reach down into the schools with books like the Sadkers’ “Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls” (1994) — published, incidentally, when it was clear to anyone who cared to look at the data that girls were doing better than boys in school — and “Take Our Daughters to Work” day (which started in 1993), they were only reaching out to girls. As the father of three sons, I was furious about that back then, and there is little question in my mind that this complete ignoring of boys by a major social movement is one reason that boys — black, Latino, and white — are struggling so much today.
To take gender out of the race equation makes no sense. A cover story in Newsweek way back in March 2003, was titled “From Schools to Jobs: Black Women Are Rising Much Faster Than Black Men. What It Means for Work, Family and Race Relations.” Yes, more black men are going to college today, but the increase in the number of black women attending is far, far higher, so what Newsweek back then called “the black gender gap” is even larger today than it was then.
Warner talks about the importance of fathers as role models, but all these years of ignoring of boys means, according to MIT economist David Autor, that there are fewer good role model fathers to go around — so it’s a vicious cycle. She also talks about how schools should simply expect high performance from all children and writes, “The idea isn’t, then, to pit boys’ needs against those of girls or view one gender’s success as a zero-sum game that requires the relative failure of the other.” She quotes sociologist Buchmann:
If we just throw our hands up in the air and say this is just a crisis affecting all boys, that just guarantees that we’re not thinking clearly about what we need to do to solve the ‘crisis.’ The solution is rather to realize that a rising tide of educational expectation will raise all boats.
Ah, but if someone could have written those words back in the 1990s when all the attention was to girls and, and how great it would have been back then if someone had spoken out that we shouldn’t pit girls’ needs against those of boys, or “view one gender’s success as a zero-sum game that requires the relative failure of the other.” What did feminists think would happen when they transferred some of their (so often justifiable) resentments and anger onto their own and everyone else’s sons and grandsons by ignoring them and giving special attention only to girls?
To help one group of children and ignore the other, especially when the group you are helping is already doing better, is a social and educational crime, and we are still paying for it today; and we will be until we recognize that, yes, there is a boy crisis, and it has to get attention. Not so boys can get ahead, but rather so they can catch up.