Boys don’t like school, perform worse in school, and attend college and graduate at lower rates than girls. It was not always the case. Are we even trying to address these issues? Occasionally one hears it lamented that boys are not doing well in education. But there is not much evidence of an ongoing effort to ameliorate this problem in a manner that might actually appeal to… boys.
It is dubious as to whether we even have “permission” to explore this question, resting as it does on the premise that there are innate differences between the sexes and complicating the assertion that men are universally the oppressor. Thankfully, Dr. Leonard Sax, a medical doctor and psychologist, explored this issue in 2007 with his book Boys Adrift.
Boys are less inclined to be seated at a desk quietly and to attend to their schoolwork and homework. Especially in kindergarten, Sax believes that learning should be more tactile with experiences in the world. In so doing, we would leverage boys’ preference for movement and action as opposed to passivity. He explains: “Boys who have been deprived of time outdoors, interacting with the real world rather than with computers, sometimes have trouble grasping concepts that seem simple to us.” Boys especially need an experiential route to knowledge as opposed to one that derives from a computer screen at school.
But one must exercise caution in this view. It aligns with progressive education theorists such as Thomas Dewey, who overextend these conclusions, going so far as to entirely repudiate book-learning as insufficient, opting instead for only “authentic” activities. Acknowledging that book-learning alone is insufficient, especially for younger students, needn’t mean we entirely do away with book learning, only temper our overreliance on it. Dr. Sax is perhaps unaware that the Dewey school of education has gone so far as to crowd out academic knowledge, emphasizing experiential education to the exclusion of the three R’s.
According to Sax, girls generally favor collaboration, whereas boys are more inclined towards competition. Obviously, there are outliers — boys that don’t like competition and girls that do like competition — but in general, Sax advises that we follow the conventional wisdom: boys thrive with competition. “Most girls value friendship over team affiliation,” Sax writes. Yet we approach education with an eye toward stamping out the competition and healthy expressions of aggression; instead, there is a predilection towards collaboration, affirmation of self-esteem, and expression of feelings.
The type of competition that would appeal to boys is that in which “there are winners and losers” and one in which “the outcome is in doubt.” Do educators dare to create such a competitive environment? If you got the highest score, whether on a paper and pencil test or an online educational contest, you have “won” a contest in which the outcome was in doubt. But it can’t be an “everyone gets a trophy” type of competition, which has become the norm. In my opinion, an objective measure of knowledge is more meaningful than a group project in which “success” is defined by a teacher’s subjective evaluation of the group’s work. I suspect this way of doing class (an environment that favors collaboration, feelings, and nebulous projects) is not particularly appealing to boys.
Sax invokes Neitzche’s concept of the “will to power,” a strong instinct in boys. This explains boys’ fixation with video games, which are so detrimental to their progress in school. In video games, boys can decide matters of life or death (usually death, as one is typically tasked with killing people in video games). In this context, boys feel a sense of importance, however deceptive that feeling really is.
As time spent playing them detracts from time studying, video games have a negative correlation with students’ academic performance, but how and why they appeal to boys can aid teachers in their academic engagement of male students.
Sax does not believe that technology is the answer to engaging boys, nor does he think that we should make instruction simulate a video game in order to pander to students. Better to interest them in the real world, or in a team competition. Yet the tendency to make education more like video games has accelerated from the time of publication of Boys Adrift. Google Classroom, for example, makes the online experience for students something like social media in terms of its layout. Ed-tech has become ubiquitous, especially since Covid, and there is a bevy of popular ed-tech apps.
Far from creating a competitive, dynamic educational environment that would appeal to boys, we have instead banned dodgeball and misinterpreted every harmless play by boys (making gun-like shapes out of food and saying “bang, bang”) as potential violence. We are in a sense oppressing boys and failing to provide them with an outlet to express healthy masculinity.
In the second half of the book, Sax focuses on what he terms boys’ “failure to launch,” by which he means their failure to strike out independently from their parents. This he attributes to a culture so toxic that it offers up only the worst possible male role models (writing in 2007, he offers Eminem and 50 Cent as examples). Indeed, we lack examples of healthy masculinity, and this situation has not improved since Boys Adrift was published. There is a lack of initiation of boys entering manhood, fostered by adult males rather than adolescent peers, as well as a lack of a clear definition of what it means to be a man.
Sadly, none of the issues addressed in Boys Adrift have been rectified in the 15 years since its publication. Education is delivered in a way that is particularly unappealing to boys. What’s more, it seems we are less equipped than ever to address the challenges explicated in this book, given that we have stigmatized masculinity to such an extent that addressing the particular challenges of boys would appear anachronistic.