Monday, January 23, 2006

Newsweeks "The Boys Crisis"

Old Business

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.


New Business

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.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

You might find this interesting. I don't think that the current situation simply happened by itself:


Girls Education

Alonzo Fyfe said...

No, it did not happen by itself.

There was, in fact, evidence of a strong prejudice against girls in school, and a concerted effort to change this. One could argue that the effort went too far.

Yet, I think it is important to note how those who complained about the poor quality of girls' education focused on math and science, and the "Boys Crisis" focuses mainly on reading and writing.

This is not an either/or situation. It may well be the case that girls are getting poorer education than boys in math and science, while boys are getting worse education than girls in reading and writing.

One of the changes made recently in science and math classes was to focus more on "story problems" and essay questions -- more on reading and writing, which can be said to have made them more girl-friendly.

Yet, all of this plays to the main theme in my essay. Which is that we should not be making "gender issues" out of things that are not gender issues. Rather than focusing on boys vs girls, we should be focusing on poor writers vs. good writers, or poor science students vs. good science students.

Gender remains, at best, only a semi-reliable indicator of performance.

Which, by the way,

Li said...

This article from the Washington Post: "The Myth of the Boy Crisis" http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/04/07/AR2006040702025.html
offers a counter-argument which accurately shows that the discrepancies are more dependent upon race and class, especially concerning dropout rates, and that the gender differences are so minimal as to be meaningless, statistically. It also shows that this gender difference debate in education has a long history.

Li said...

his article from the Washington Post: "The Myth of the Boy Crisis" http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/04/07/AR2006040702025.html
offers a counter-argument which accurately shows that the discrepancies are more dependent upon race and class, especially concerning dropout rates, and that the gender differences are so minimal as to be meaningless, statistically. It also shows that this gender difference debate in education has a long history.