Sunday, September 19, 2010

Are boys really the weaker sex?

Have you ever read William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts I and II, and Henry V? Over the course of these three plays, the frivolous, party-animal Price Hal (who hangs out with the drunken wanna-be ladies man, Falstaff) grows from a petulant young man into the King who leads the English victory over France in Henry V.

Hal/Henry is is nearly an archetypal example of how young men can be irresponsible and yet grow into greatness. Winston Churchill did it, some might argue that George W Bush did it (well, at least he became president after a misspent youth).

The difference in all of these cases is that the young men come from privilege - most young men are not so lucky. This article from The Telegraph (UK) looks at this issue as it relates to boys and girls in school, and how expectations may shape outcomes (by age 7 or 8, boys agree that girls are smarter and more hard-working than they are).

However, boys who have fathers who inspire them (not push, force, or require) do much better than boys who do not have fathers who take an interesting in their education success. The men mentioned above all had fathers who sought more from their sons than the sons were giving - this is crucial.

By way of example, I could not read until the 2nd grade - and I was thought to be, uh, "slow," so I was put in with the other slow kids and made fun of in class. My father took it upon himself (one of the most important things he ever did for me) to teach me to read, and he kept encouraging me to read until the day he died. This is included allowing me to read whatever I wanted, including his science fiction books/magazines, and novels like To Kill a Mockingbird, Slaughter-House Five, and so on.

Are boys really the weaker sex?

Little girls already see themselves as academic front-runners, but often the rebel boy wins out in the end, says Jenny McCartney

At four, most girls believe they're cleverer than boys; by eight, boys believe it too Photo: Alamy

My four-year-old son starts school next week, and is already fizzing with excitement. But if recent gloomy reports are to be believed, the lot of a British schoolboy is fated to be one of slowly shrinking self-belief.

Last week it was revealed that almost three out of 10 primary schools are now staffed exclusively by women. It also emerged that, by the age of four, little girls generally hold the opinion that they are cleverer, more successful and harder-working than boys. By the age of seven or eight, the downtrodden boys are inclined to agree.

We are wont to wring our hands at this, foreseeing a generation of boys set adrift on a sea of unsympathetic femininity, glumly squandering chances while their smarter sisters sashay past to grab all the prizes. But before the mothers of sons march upon Whitehall, it is worth remembering that boys have always struggled more vigorously against the restrictions imposed by education.

History bristles with great men who, despite evident intelligence, displayed no overwhelming desire to knuckle down. Winston Churchill, who frequently displayed a truculent and lazy disposition in the classroom, was warned by his exasperated father that if he continued leading "the idly useless unprofitable life you have during your school days and later months, you will become a mere social wastrel".

What Churchill did have, of course, was an overtly concerned father; a heavy weight of expectation upon him; and immersion in schools in which discipline was strongly upheld, whereby even an inherently rebellious boy could absorb a significant amount of knowledge by osmosis. The boys who do worst today are those from the most socially deprived families, who frequently have none of these advantages: the biggest factor holding them back is not their masculinity or intellect, but their background, and the restricted and chaotic opportunities that the state system offers them.

Few instances made that clearer than the case of Ryan Bell, the 14-year-old black youth from a south London housing estate who had been ejected from his comprehensive school for being "disruptive". He was placed in Downside, the leading Catholic independent school, as part of a social experiment filmed by Channel 4, and within a year was top of his class in biology and Latin and a talented rugby player.

In 2003, Bell was expelled for a series of disciplinary problems, partly attributable to a failure among adults to think through the level of emotional support he would need. But the world had been afforded an unusual glimpse of the talent that is buried in poor schools and fragmented families across Britain.

Boys who have academically ambitious parents – particularly fathers – will probably survive unscathed the increasing "feminisation" of education in the early years. For those who do not, it will be yet another disincentive among many. Yet what of the flip-side: the girls who are apparently so diligent and obedient?

I am not sure that this always constitutes a female triumph. In recent years, our education system has increasingly come to value tractability, in intellectual development as well as classroom behaviour. As coursework is more tightly plotted, and the obsession with making the top grade grows, many teachers have complained that the pressure to "teach to the test" leaves scant room for original thought.

Some years ago, when I sat in on interviews for a post-graduate course, I was quite unexpectedly struck by a generalised difference between female and male candidates. The women were impeccably presented, well- spoken, but often visibly uncomfortable with any question that veered from the expected script; the men, often shambolic and reckless, were more willing to risk a controversial response.

Girls are more frequently people-pleasers, but they should not be led to presume that teachers and examiners are reliably satisfied with textbook answers. The very top jobs still demand a questioning mind; the question, for all pupils, is whether Britain's education system has the mettle to encourage it.

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