Since I started teaching several years ago, after 25 years in the movie business, I’ve come to learn firsthand that everything I’d heard about the feminization of our schools is real—and far more pernicious to boys than I had imagined. Christina Hoff Sommers was absolutely accurate in describing, in her 2000 bestseller, The War Against Boys, how feminist complaints that girls were “losing their voice” in a male-oriented classroom have prompted the educational establishment to turn the schools upside down to make them more girl-friendly, to the detriment of males.
As a result, boys have become increasingly disengaged. Only 65 percent earned high school diplomas in the class of 2003, compared with 72 percent of girls, education researcher Jay Greene recently documented. Girls now so outnumber boys on most university campuses across the country that some schools, like Kenyon College, have even begun to practice affirmative action for boys in admissions. And as in high school, girls are getting better grades and graduating at a higher rate.
As Sommers understood, it is boys’ aggressive and rationalist nature—redefined by educators as a behavioral disorder—that’s getting so many of them in trouble in the feminized schools. Their problem: they don’t want to be girls.
Take my tenth-grade student Brandon. I noted that he was on the no-pass list again, after three consecutive days in detention for being disruptive. “Who gave it to you this time?” I asked, passing him on my way out.
“Waverly,” he muttered into the long folding table.
“Just asking a question,” he replied.
“No,” I corrected him. “You said”—and here I mimicked his voice—“ ‘Why do we have to do this crap anyway?’ Right?”
Brandon recalls one of those sweet, ruby-cheeked boys you often see depicted on English porcelain.
He’s smart, precocious, and—according to his special-education profile—has been “behaviorally challenged” since fifth grade. The special-ed classification is the bane of the modern boy. To teachers, it’s a yellow flag that snaps out at you the moment you open a student’s folder. More than any other factor, it has determined Brandon’s and legions of other boys’ troubled tenures as students.
Brandon’s current problem began because Ms. Waverly, his social studies teacher, failed to answer one critical question: What was the point of the lesson she was teaching? One of the first observations I made as a teacher was that boys invariably ask this question, while girls seldom do. When a teacher assigns a paper or a project, girls will obediently flip their notebooks open and jot down the due date. Teachers love them. God loves them. Girls are calm and pleasant. They succeed through cooperation.
Boys will pin you to the wall like a moth. They want a rational explanation for everything. If unconvinced by your reasons—or if you don’t bother to offer any—they slouch contemptuously in their chairs, beat their pencils, or watch the squirrels outside the window. Two days before the paper is due, girls are handing in the finished product in neat vinyl folders with colorful clip-art title pages. It isn’t until the boys notice this that the alarm sounds. “Hey, you never told us ’bout a paper! What paper?! I want to see my fucking counselor!”
A female teacher, especially if she has no male children of her own, I’ve noticed, will tend to view boys’ penchant for challenging classroom assignments as disruptive, disrespectful—rude. In my experience, notes home and parent-teacher conferences almost always concern a boy’s behavior in class, usually centering on this kind of conflict. In today’s feminized classroom, with its “cooperative learning” and “inclusiveness,” a student’s demand for assurance of a worthwhile outcome for his effort isn’t met with a reasonable explanation but is considered inimical to the educational process. Yet it’s this very trait, innate to boys and men, that helps explain male success in the hard sciences, math, and business.
The difference between the male and female predilection for hard proof shows up among the teachers, too. In my second year of teaching, I attended a required seminar on “differentiated instruction,” a teaching model that is the current rage in the fickle world of pop education theory. The method addresses the need to teach all students in a classroom where academic abilities vary greatly—where there is “heterogeneous grouping,” to use the ed-school jargon—meaning kids with IQs of 55 sit side by side with the gifted. The theory goes that the “least restrictive environment” is best for helping the intellectually challenged. The teacher’s job is to figure out how to dice up his daily lessons to address every perceived shortcoming and disability in the classroom.
After the lecture, we broke into groups of five, with instructions to work cooperatively to come up with a model lesson plan for just such a classroom situation. My group had two men and three women. The women immediately set to work; my seasoned male cohort and I reclined sullenly in our chairs.
“Are the women going to do all the work?” one of the women inquired brightly after about ten minutes.
“This is baloney,” my friend declared, yawning, as he chucked the seminar handout into a row of empty plastic juice bottles. “We wouldn’t have this problem if we grouped kids by ability, like we used to.”
The women, all dedicated teachers, understood this, too. But that wasn’t the point. Treating people as equals was a social goal well worth pursuing. And we contentious boys were just too dumb to get it.
Female approval has a powerful effect on the male psyche. Kindness, consideration, and elevated moral purpose have nothing to do with an irreducible proof, of course. Yet we male teachers squirm when women point out our moral failings—and our boy students do, too. This is the virtue that has helped women redefine the mission of education.
The notion of male ethical inferiority first arises in grammar school, where women make up the overwhelming majority of teachers. It’s here that the alphabet soup of supposed male dysfunctions begins. And make no mistake: while girls occasionally exhibit symptoms of male-related disorders in this world, females diagnosed with learning disabilities simply don’t exist.
For a generation now, many well-meaning parents, worn down by their boy’s failure to flourish in school, his poor self-esteem and unhappiness, his discipline problems, decide to accept administration recommendations to have him tested for disabilities. The pitch sounds reasonable: admission into special ed qualifies him for tutoring, modified lessons, extra time on tests (including the SAT), and other supposed benefits. It’s all a hustle, Mom and Dad privately advise their boy. Don’t worry about it. We know there’s nothing wrong with you.
To get into special ed, however, administrators must find something wrong. In my four years of teaching, I’ve never seen them fail. In the first IEP (Individualized Educational Program) meeting, the boy and his parents learn the results of disability testing. When the boy hears from three smiling adults that he does indeed have a learning disability, his young face quivers like Jell-O. For him, it was never a hustle. From then on, however, his expectations of himself—and those of his teachers—plummet.
Special ed is the great spangled elephant in the education parade. Each year, it grows larger and more lumbering, drawing more and more boys into the procession. Since the publication of Sommers’s book, it has grown tenfold. Special ed now is the single largest budget item, outside of basic operations, in most school districts across the country.
Special-ed boosters like to point to the success that boys enjoy after they begin the program. Their grades rise, and the phone calls home cease. Anxious parents feel reassured that progress is happening. In truth, I have rarely seen any real improvement in a student’s performance after he’s become a special-ed kid. On my first day of teaching, I received manila folders for all five of my special-ed students—boys all—with a score of modifications that I had to make in each day’s lesson plan.
I noticed early on that my special-ed boys often sat at their desks with their heads down or casually staring off into space, as if tracking motes in their eyes, while I proceeded with my lesson. A special-ed caseworker would arrive, take their assignments, and disappear with the boys into the resource room. The students would return the next day with completed assignments.
“Did you do this yourself?” I’d ask, dubious.
They assured me that they did. I became suspicious, however, when I noticed that they couldn’t perform the same work on their own, away from the resource room. A special-ed caseworker’s job is to keep her charges from failing. A failure invites scrutiny and reams of paperwork. The caseworkers do their jobs.
Brandon has been on the special-ed track since he was nine. He knows his legal rights as well as his caseworkers do. And he plays them ruthlessly. In every debate I have with him about his low performance, Brandon delicately threads his response with the very sinews that bind him. After a particularly easy midterm, I made him stay after class to explain his failure.
“An ‘F’?!” I said, holding the test under his nose.
“You were supposed to modify that test,” he countered coolly. “I only had to answer nine of the 27 questions. The nine I did are all right.”
His argument is like a piece of fine crystal that he rolls admiringly in his hand. He demands that I appreciate the elegance of his position. I do, particularly because my own is so weak.
Yet while the process of education may be deeply absorbing to Brandon, he long ago came to dismiss the content entirely. For several decades, white Anglo-Saxon males—Brandon’s ancestors—have faced withering assault from feminism- and multiculturalism-inspired education specialists. Armed with a spiteful moral rectitude, their goal is to sever his historical reach, to defame, cover over, dilute . . . and then reconstruct.
In today’s politically correct textbooks, Nikki Giovanni and Toni Morrison stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and Charles Dickens, even though both women are second-raters at best. But even in their superficial aspects, the textbooks advertise publishers’ intent to pander to the prevailing PC attitudes. The books feature page after page of healthy, exuberant young girls in winning portraits. Boys (white boys in particular) will more often than not be shunted to the background in photos or be absent entirely or appear sitting in wheelchairs.
The underlying message isn’t lost on Brandon. His keen young mind reads between the lines and perceives the folly of all that he’s told to accept. Because he lacks an adult perspective, however, what he cannot grasp is the ruthlessness of the war that the education reformers have waged. Often when he provokes, it’s simple boyish tit for tat.
A week ago, I dispatched Brandon to the library with directions to choose a book for his novel assignment. He returned minutes later with his choice and a twinkling smile.
“I got a grrreat book, Mr. Garibaldi!” he said, holding up an old, bleary, clothbound item. “Can I read the first page aloud, pahlease?”
My mind buzzed like a fly, trying to discover some hint of mischief.
“Who’s the author?”
“Ah, Joseph Conrad,” he replied, consulting the frontispiece. “Can I? Huh, huh, huh?”
“I guess so.”
Brandon eagerly stood up before the now-alert class of mostly black and Puerto Rican faces, adjusted his shoulders as if straightening a prep-school blazer, then intoned solemnly: “The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ ”—twinkle, twinkle, twinkle. “Chapter one. . . .”
Merry mayhem ensued. Brandon had one of his best days of the year.
Boys today feel isolated and outgunned, but many, like Brandon, don’t lack pluck and courage. They often seem to have more of it than their parents, who writhe uncomfortably before a system steeled in the armor of “social conscience.” The game, parents whisper to themselves, is to play along, to maneuver, to outdistance your rival. Brandon’s struggle is an honest one: to preserve truth and his own integrity.
Boys who get a compartment on the special-ed train take the ride to its end without looking out the window. They wait for the moment when they can step out and scorn the rattletrap that took them nowhere. At the end of the line, some, like Brandon, may have forged the resiliency of survival. But that’s not what school is for.