Boy crisis? No job too big for the Hardy Boys, says Kristof

April 1, 2010 § 1 Comment

There’s a crisis in boys’ education, and the Hardy boys can solve it, according to the New York Time’s Nicholas Kristof.

In a recent column, Kristof argues that it is so passé to fuss over girls’ lack of advancement in mathematics; instead, the new and most pressing gender gap issue in education is the boy crisis. In recent years, girls have pulled ahead of boys in reading in every state, according to a new report by the Center on Education Policy.

That’s right, when girls pull ahead of boys, it becomes a crisis. Never mind that both sexes are actually scoring higher in reading now than in previous decades, what matters is that when you pit the two sexes together in a zero-sum game, boys are falling behind girls. And that’s what this ‘boy crisis’ is about, according to a report by Education Sector, an independent think tank:

“The hysteria about boys is partly a matter of perspective. While most of society has finally embraced the idea of equality for women, the idea that women might actually surpass men in some areas (even as they remain behind in others) seems hard for many people to swallow. Thus, boys are routinely characterized as “falling behind” even as they improve in absolute terms.”

But education shouldn’t be seen as a zero-sum game. So, if there’s an idea about how boys can be better served by our education system, it deserves attention. But it’s a shame that propagators of the boy crisis myth only seem to come up with hokey proposals to reform the education system that are neither good for boys or girls.

Kristof makes the case that schools should teach more from literature that appeals to boys in the classroom, and apparently that would be books that fall under the category of “ghosts”, “boxers, wrestlers and ultimate fighters”, and “at least one explosion” because what are boys made of but dogs, snails and puppy dog tails.

As boyishly innocent as Kristof’s proposal may seem, organizing boys and girls’ reading material and curriculum by gender is a disservice to children of all sexes. Not to mention, it’s been done before. The same essentialist presumption about how boys and girls’ minds are wired differently had been used to justify policies that prohibited women from getting equal access to education.

Not all boys like guts and gore, not all girls like princesses and glitter, and not all children identify as boys or girls. To state the obvious, people’s preferences are not only shaped by their sex and gender, but also their experiences, class, race, etc.

So, though Kristof cites both his and his sons’ childhood affection for The Hardy Boys as support for his proposal to bring more “lowbrow, adventure” books into the classroom to entice boys to read, I have a hunch that the white-picket-fence Hardy brothers won’t be as warmly embraced by, say, a Hispanic or black boy from a low-income, single parent household—the demographic that is fairing among the worst in our education system; which is also to say that this isn’t just a boy crisis, but an issue of race and class.

The achievement gap between students of different races and classes are much larger than the gap between genders, anywhere to two to five times, depending on the grade. Working on closing the economic and racial gap would benefit minority boys in low-income households—the most disadvantaged group in our schools– much more than assigning them books that have “at least one explosion”.

I am not saying that our classroom reading list does not need reform. I was not assigned a single woman author in English class during my senior year of high school. And I’m going to make an educated guess that if you have gone through high school, you too can probably count all the woman authors you were assigned to read on one hand. So, it’s hard for me to empathize with the argument that we aren’t giving our boys enough guy-lit…

What’s that supposed to mean anyway–guy-lit? Kristof mentioned The Hardy Boys series. His colleague, David Brooks—another propagator of the boy crisis myth, and a proponent of sex segregated schools—mentions Hemingway, Camus, Tolstoy, Homer and Twain.

I read Homer, Camus, Hemingway and Twain in high school. So, if that’s what he’s calling guy-lit, then most of the stuff they make kids read in school fits that category anyway. We girls are forced to read this “guy-lit” stuff all the time. And although I think it’s a disservice to students of all genders that so few woman authors are assigned, Camus’s The Stranger and Twain’s The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn are among my favorite books. Meanwhile, Huck Finn was one of my male classmate’s least favorite books. Why am I bothering to mention something so unremarkable? Because there are people like Brooks and Kristof with the bizarre perspective that boys can only enjoy stuff written by dudes.

There’s a crisis in boys’ education alright, but it’s not what Kristof thinks it is. The problem starts when boys learn that it’s not okay to be beat by a girl. The problem is lowered expectations—the notion that boys don’t have the capacity and attention span to appreciate good literature if it’s authored by a woman, and doesn’t have “at least one explosion”.

In a world where gender is tightly policed, literature offers a way in which people can temporarily step out of their shoes, and learn about the experiences of others. If Kristof’s proposal of “nurturing boys with explosions” is actually taken seriously, it would be a grave disservice to our boys and our society.

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§ One Response to Boy crisis? No job too big for the Hardy Boys, says Kristof

  • Lee Ann says:

    Wow, I’ve actually heard about this issue a few years ago that talked about how the boys are falling behind, but I never associated it with the sex issue – how it’s ok for girls to fall behind, but not the boys… and yeah, it was interesting how you brought up the race/class issue, too… many observations that I didn’t even think about… thanks for the insightful post…

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