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Reflections on the Education of Boys

February 15, 2013

Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote an essay in The New York Times last Sunday entitled “The Boys at the Back.”  The essay summarizes both the history of boys’ academic performance in America and argues that boys are falling behind in school, college and graduate schools.

The history of gender in education is, of course, interesting.  Profound changes in our society’s view of women in the professions and in the workplace led to dramatic changes in the work women pursued in American schools.  As the women’s movement awakened America to the moral, ethical and economic importance of gender equity, American education opened new doors of opportunity to women in all aspects of 20th and 21st century life.

The move to coeducation at schools like St. Andrew’s did not immediately lead to success and fulfillment for girls – there were many years of transition, adjustment and change necessary for St. Andrew’s to move from an all-boys’ school to a truly coeducational one.  But today, in the year 2013, our girls thrive and flourish in a dynamic academic, athletic and residential environment.  Nationally, the academic performance of women and girls now leaves boys and men behind.  Sommers writes:  “Women now account for roughly 60 percent of associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees and have begun to outpace men in obtaining Ph.D.’s.”

In the 1980s, still relatively early years in coeducation, schools and colleges turned to Carol Gilligan, whose book In a Different Voice enlightened educators to the distinctive and powerful ways girls and women participated in our academic and campus cultures.  Schools and colleges sought to free themselves of classes dominated by boys or taught by men and women who expressed either intentional or unintentional bias towards the professional development of boys and men.  Girls and young women responded to these changes in culture, expectations and opportunity, and today find success in the academy and college.

Over the last few years, many studies have focused on the performance, growth and development of boys in our schools and colleges.  In this debate, we see three or four narratives and theories:

  • Schools reward decorum, compliance, attention, diligence and industry, and in these categories girls outperform boys.  Teachers and professors reward girls for compliance and penalize boys for their inability to cooperate, to sit still and to complete work efficiently.
  • Schools do not celebrate and acknowledge the profoundly different ways boys and girls behave, both in academic and social settings.  Schools continue to value order, decorum and passive student-life programs, failing to acknowledge boys’ needs and desires for more physical and competitive activities and pursuits.  Somers writes:  “As our schools have become more feelings-central, risk-averse, collaboration-oriented and sedentary, they have moved further and further from boys’ characteristic sensibilities.”
  • Boys do not find inspiring and influential male or female role models who have a distinctive appreciation, understanding and expertise in cultivating the intellectual, emotional and ethical lives of boys.

The new report from The Journal of Human Resources coming out this week will, no doubt, stimulate further study, discussion and attention on this issue.  Sommers summarizes the report in these words:  “Boys score as well or better than girls on most standardized tests, yet they are far less likely to get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college.”

Perhaps one of the most interesting voices on the subject of the education of boys has been Dr. Michael Thompson, author of Raising Cain and a visitor to many schools across the United States.  For many years, Thompson has served as a psychologist for Belmont Hill School, an all-boys’ academy in Massachusetts.  He has visited St. Andrew’s many times.

In Raising Cain, Thompson makes the following specific recommendations for teachers, parents and schools as we work with boys:

  1. We need to give “boys permission to have an internal life and an approval for the full range of human emotions.  Boys need help in developing an emotional vocabulary so they can better understand themselves and communicate with others.”  They need authentic relationships with adults that allow them to feel safe about exploring emotions.
  2. Schools need to honor, “recognize and accept” the high levels of physical activity many boys need and enjoy.  Boys need “safe boy places” to express this exuberance.
  3. Schools and teachers need to talk to boys in their language, in a way that “honors their pride and masculinity.”  We need to engage boys and ask them to consult with us and problem-solve with us.  Without such invitations to engagement, citizenship and leadership, boys may falter and lose drive and momentum.
  4. Schools, teachers and parents need to teach boys “that emotional courage is courage and that courage and empathy are the source of real strength in life.”
  5. Boys need examples of how men express moral courage in their day-to-day lives.
  6. Schools need to “use discipline to build character and conscience, not enemies.”  Thompson explains that boys lose hope and dignity when they experience anger, humiliation and judgment from adults.  They value the opportunity to reflect, make amends and begin anew.
  7. Boys need role models who illustrate the power of “emotional attachment.”  Thompson argues that boys respond powerfully to men who model friendship, camaraderie and joy in their interactions with other men.

Schools need to teach boys “that there are many ways to be a man.”  Thompson writes:

We have to teach boys that there are many ways to become a man; that there are many ways to be brave, to be a good father, to be loving and strong and successful.  We need to celebrate the natural creativity and risk taking of boys, their energy, their boldness.  We need to praise the artist and the entertainer, the missionary and the athlete, the soldier and male nurse, the store owner and the round the world sailor, the teacher and the CEO.

I have been honored to work with boys for 34 years as a teacher, coach, advisor, dorm parent and Headmaster, and of course, one of the ways I evaluate St. Andrew’s is to explore just how coeducation contributes to the growth and development of boys and girls.  Here are the observations, principles and insights I have gathered over these many years:

  • The emergence of strong, vibrant, dynamic young women within the school does not interfere with or diminish the ability of boys to grow and flourish here.  In fact, I argue that the flourishing of coeducation has helped both boys and girls to become more intelligent, resourceful, collaborative, respectful and ambitious.
  • I believe that boys respond powerfully to adult mentors and role models – both male and female.
  • Over my years at St. Andrew’s, boys have become more involved in the arts, community service and leadership.  These developments have improved the boys’ culture, participation and pursuit of excellence.
  • The 21st century culture of distraction and technology affects boys more powerfully than girls.  We need to find ways to educate boys to the power and potential of technology and at the same time, support them to manage time carefully.
  • Boys at St. Andrew’s make friends that last for a lifetime – their experience together as boarding students is very important to them.
  • Senior boy leaders are doing remarkable work, counseling, mentoring, advising and inspiring younger students.
  • The improvements in our athletic facilities have helped boys find important physical outlets in the course of a year.
  • I agree with Michael Thompson that adults sometimes do not know how to approach adolescent boys – they label them, vilify them, stereotype them and lower expectations for them.  St. Andrew’s culture helps us to engage boys and help them grow.
  • The more we ask boys to problem solve and contribute to the culture of the school, the more boys respond.

I am proud of the young men and young women who live, learn and grow at St. Andrew’s each year.  We will continue to work very hard to be the very best school for young men and young women we can be.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Joan O'Brien permalink
    February 18, 2013 1:24 pm

    Excellent article, Tad. Thank you. I think that when you send out Acceptance Letters in March that you might want to include this. It is really thought provoking and informative.

  2. Tracy Finnegan permalink
    September 4, 2013 10:12 pm

    Very insightful. Thank you for posting!

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