An earlier post, “A Perspective on the Pledge” managed to get accepted into Issue 32 of Carnival of the Godless. I am honored to be allowed to participate in this collection of essays, and I encourage readers to check it out.
Newsweek's cover story this week concerns, "The Boy Crisis".
The main gist of the story is that there are physiological differences in how the brains of boys and girls function. In the last couple of decades, classrooms have become decidedly "girl-friendly", putting boys at a disadvantage. We see this, for example, in the fact that the number of women in college now exceeds the number of men by a ratio nearing 56% to 44%.
I have questions about some of the assumptions that seem to have been built into this article.
Unequal Results Does Not Imply Unequal Opportunity
For example, the article seems to assume that having more females entering college than males is a problem. It assumes that we should strive for equality here. If the ratio tilts one way or another, this is seen as proof that our institutions are out of alignment.
Maybe they are out of alignment. However, this is not entailed by any difference in the ratio. Even if we went purely by random chance, rolling a dozen dice, we could end up with every die coming up a six. The fact that we got all sixes does not prove that the dice were loaded, and that there was not an equal opportunity for any other number to show up.
Different Is Not Evil
Even if the difference was not assigned to chance, there is no automatic reason to assume that the results should be different. There is no basis for assuming that such a statement is true – any more than we should assume that the number of boys who are 6’ tall should be equal to the number of girls. Furthermore, we would not say anything about that women are “worse” than men because fewer of them are 6’ tall, only that they are different.
Ultimately, I am a huge fan of education. I can see few things that are as universally good as a well-educated population. Every other problem we need to solve can be solved better by those who actually understand the problem. Yet, at this point, all I have are bare assertions. I recognize the need to provide assertions such as this with some support.
Gender as an Unreliable Indicator
According to the article, one of the ways that schools are handling "the Boys Crisis" is putting boys and girls in separate classes. The working assumption is that boys' and 'girls' learn differently (a claim supported by the fact that there are physical differences in brain parts just as there are physical differences in other body parts).
Now, what should the school do with the boy whose brain, as can be determined by brain scans, is structurally more like a girl's than a boy's? Does the school force that child into a gender stereotype in which he or she does not belong? Or does the school put this child in a class of the opposite gender?
This ‘problem’ is a consequence of treating an issue that is not really a gender issue as if it is an issue about gender. Gender is being used as a semi-reliable indicator of ‘something else.’ If this ‘something else’ is the real issue, then we would be better off focusing on the ‘something else’ and not focusing on its semi-reliable substitute.
For example, just as the body changes at puberty, so does the brain. These changes in the brain may affect how people learn. Girls experience these changes earlier than boys. However, in any population, there will be some boys who mature earlier than the average girl, and some girls who mature later than the average boy.
If these brain changes effect how best to teach a child, then it would be a mistake to divide this group into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’. This is, at best, a semi-reliable indicator of the characteristic that is actually affecting learning. By focusing on gender, rather than the target characteristic, we put some boys and girls in the wrong group. We make mistakes, and the children pay for those mistakes.
In some cases, gender may be the most reliable indicator we have. In these cases, we will be forced to use this indicator. However, in every case we need to ask whether a better indicator is available. If it is, then it is simply a mistake to couch the issue in terms of gender.
The issue, in this case, is about people falling behind in school. Most are boys; some are not. This is not an issue of boys vs. girls. It is an issue of those falling behind vs. those who are not.