The other day David Brooks jumped on the bandwagon of folks wringing their hands in distress because–horror of horrors–girls are outperforming boys in school.
Brooks claims that little boys could reasonably conclude–based on playground safety rules and classroom behavioral requirements–that “the official school culture is for wimps and softies.” This claim reminded me of the story Tony Porter told in his TED talk about a little boy telling him he’d “rather die than be a girl.” We are still implicitly telling little boys that femaleness is less valuable than maleness–and therefore that traditionally female behavioral traits like nurturing, listening and collaborating are inherently less valuable than traditionally male traits like rambunctiousness and aggression. No wonder little boys don’t want to sit still. Sitting still would be wimpy and soft and so humiliatingly female. You can almost hear Brooks whining about how it just isn’t fair to ask boys to behave themselves.
So never mind that the United States’ K-12 math and science education ranks 48th out of 133 nations. Never mind that girls still lag behind boys in math and science, though as Brooks laments, “that gap is nearly gone.” Never mind that classrooms are overcrowded, and that already underpaid teachers routinely spend their own money on classroom supplies. Never mind that relationship violence among middle and high school students is rising. And never mind that this country can’t even fund science-based sex education. No, clearly these things aren’t nearly as important as the fact that boys are struggling to sit still in school. And this fact alone demands an immediate and complete overhaul of the entire system. Because those other problems weren’t enough to make that fact readily evident, and because–as everyone knows–the success of one sex must always come at the expense of the other.
I agree with Brooks that we need an education overhaul, and that those who are designing that overhaul need to account for individual differences in students’ personalities and energy levels. Overall, all children regardless of their sex or gender need much more time for unstructured play and exercise than we give them. Recess and PE are really important. And it may be that because girls are socialized to be more accommodating than boys, they are more likely to be comfortable abnegating that need in favor of sitting quietly and pleasing their teachers.
But whatever the problems in our school system, calling out the underperformance of boys in isolation and using it to call for an educational overhaul is like freaking out over a flesh wound when the patient has cancer.