Boys Versus Girls

Commenter Mad Kalak makes this observation from my e-book about teaching in the Bronx and elsewhere:

Your stories feed into my general feeling that millions of years of evolution that give boys a bias for action, means that trying to make them into girls who are more content with non-action and to passively sit in classrooms inevitably leads to poor outcomes for male youth.

I’ve been thinking about this issue from another perspective because of the recent attention to the increasing number of men aged 25-54 who are neither working nor searching for work; as the New York Times reported earlier this week:

As of last month, 11.4 percent of menbetween the ages of 25 and 54 — or about seven million people — were not in the labor force, which means that they were not employed and were not seeking a job. This percentage has been rising for decades (it was less than 4 percent in the 1950s), but the trend accelerated in the last 20 years.



There are obviously any number of causes of the increasing number of men who are outside the workforce- opiate abuse and the availability of Social Security Disability are probably both a cause and an effect of some of the increase, and the Times article focuses on the association of workforce non-participation with pain and disability:



But it’s worth noting that older teens and young men (who are unlikely to be incapacitated by back pain or injury) are also much less likely to be employed now than they once were, such that the gap in employment rates between young men aged 15-24 and young women has entirely closed- in spite of an ever increasing percentage of high school graduates, college entrants and college graduates being women. More and more young men are, indeed, neither in work nor in school:



None of this is anything new, of course: the economist David Autor among others has written a lot about this “new” gender gap in labor markets and education.

Another question, though, is how much we should blame school for setting up boys up for this “failure to launch.” It’s pretty hard to say with certainty how school should be different, if it were to prepare boys for more success.

Here’s something on this topic that I wrote while I was still teaching middle school; (and while middle school boys are doomed to always be a bit hapless, as I’ve noted before, I was surprised to find more recently that the gender gap in work habits among college students seemed almost as large…)

I do morning yard duty at the middle school where I teach.  Every day—even in this sometimes chilly April—there are 30 to 35 boys in the schoolyard as early as they can get there.  It’s a different game every day, basketball or football or dodgeball or “Booties Up”—an invented game, kind of like handball, but with more aggressive penalties.  With the exception of basketball, which naturally divides itself between the proficient and the novice, there are few social distinctions in these games.  The dorks run after the dodgeball just as avidly as the superstars, joyfully cursing at each other and screaming for the ball.  It is boys at  their best—self-motivated, self-organized, inventive, ready to (loudly and with many curses) peacefully resolve their disputes.

And then we go upstairs to class.
Middle school is a time of great division between boys and girls. And one thing that girls, for the most part, do, and boys, for the most part, do not, is get good grades and do well in school.

At least in New York City, the grades you get in middle school are incredibly important.  A few weeks ago, thousands upon thousands of admissions letters were sent out, not to colleges, but to the city’s public high schools.  Depending on where you go, you can be in a place where 30% graduate on time and go on to college, or where 100% do. And so well before your application has found its way to a power-wielding college admissions officer, your fate has mostly been decided.

But why do girls do better in school? My experience has been that, at least in middle school, girls are just as likely to get into serious trouble– fights or arrests or drugs or running away—as boys.  And, in middle school, girls get into almost as much minor trouble in class as boys do.  (At my previous school, I mentally nicknamed one wild group of girls the Maenads, after the dangerous devotees of Dionysus in
Euripides’s play.)  And yet girls, on average, get incomparably better grades than boys, on average.

This is because girls, on average, do more homework, more classwork,
and even do better on most tests, than boys.  The  boys at my school might launch matchlessly into class discussions of subcellular functions or Darwinian evolution, but they can’t remember a pencil, can’t remember a notebook, can’t remember their homework, can’t remember to stay in their seats.   Maybe it was ever thus. I couldn’t
remember my own homework or pencil or notebook or where I put my lunch; I’m sure Tom Sawyer was the same way; and I’m sure Euripides had to borrow a pencil from the Maenad in the next row.

Maybe it’s our biological heritage, a dysfunction in our Y chromosomes that makes turning in homework on time impossible. I think of a scene from Jane Goodall’s work with the chimpanzees of Gombe: a mother chimp sits at a termite mound, patiently fishing a twig in and out to catch termites, her young daughter just as patiently imitating her technique.  Meanwhile, behind them, the chimpanzee’s son swings around a big branch and snorts.   I showed the movie to my class and everyone
laughed in instant recognition. There it was, the girls paying attention in class and the boys playing with sticks.
Is it that boys’ heads are too full—of video game cheat codes, horror movie plotlines, 50 Cent rap lyrics and NCAA scores—for them to remember the mundane ingredients of school success?  All around them, the bustling buzzing confusions of our culture swirls, for them as impossible to ignore as the Maenad in the next row.  Get a bunch of
twelve-year-old boys in a room together, and they’ll launch into minute metaphysical examinations of the Halo 3 game and Spiderman and Saturn’s moons and the election and the hybrid car engine.   But the realism required by school eludes them.   It’s not just that almost everyone wants to be a rapper or a ball player.  It’s that the rest
want to be Spiderman.

6 thoughts on “Boys Versus Girls

  1. Video games, fantasy novels, TV streaming services, movie torrenting websites, anime, fanfiction communities for all of the above= an extremely tempting alternative to taking real life seriously.

    From my own life: I’m currently applying to professional school. The enormous hurdles of applications load so heavily on conscientious that I’m often amazed anyone manages to complete them at all.

    For med school: transcripts from all universities, standardized test, multiple rec letters, multiple short essays to each school telling them why they’re a perfect match for you, and manually entering all the coursework you’ve ever done onto an unintuitive system that often glitches.

    It’s an exercise in frustration. Easier by far to lose myself in made up worlds or even in nonfiction books on topics distant from my likely future career.

    As many barriers to good careers have cropped up, extremely pleasurable alternatives to real life has emerged. No wonder work ethic has declined.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m honored that my comment earned a post! 🙂 This dropping out of the labor force is only somewhat related to how poorly 10-13 year old boys do in school, more of a post hoc relationship really. You’ve identified how the pipeline to success has narrowed due to an increased reliance on schooling as a proxy for actual ability. I happen to agree with Bryan Caplan that a college degree is almost exclusively a signalling device, this is a natural outgrowth of how courts have determined that testing of job applicants, with a few exceptions, is racially discriminatory, and prospective employees can’t just give out tests to see who can do the work, degree or not. I’m with you, in that I’m not sure what we could do with schools (other than a radical Mike Rowe type of overhaul) to make them better for boys. Though a good start would be to have more male teachers such as yourself. I distinctly remember several female teachers that didn’t know how to deal with male energy, and were condescending in a way to us boys that we didn’t have the sophistication to deal with. Also, the implication that if you like kids as a male that you’re some sorta pedophile in waiting bothers me. But on the back end, things would be better if that kid that was too immature at 13 to sit still for long periods of time, could still make up for it later in life.


  3. I work, but less than I could and I intend to slack off even more once I reach 40 and have a bit more saved.
    The reason is simpler than you imagine. These days, a young man does not need a good job or commitment to win female attention. This leads to less family formation and therefore a further reduction in the incentive for men to work hard.


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