Thursday, January 20, 2011

Boys: The Second-Class Citizens

I came across a newspaper piece written by Robert Topp, one-time dean of the college of education at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, who said schools discriminate against boys from kindergarten through high school because they penalize them for nothing more than their “masculine tendencies.” This discrimination results in more girls than boys being eligible for college and boys being given lower grades than they deserve. The trouble with boys, Dr. Topp said, is that they are boys. They don’t readily conform; they are restless; they squirm more; they are more aggressive and daring; and they don’t easily catch onto the “social niceties.”

The classroom setting, on the other hand, places a premium on traits that girls, not boys, exhibit, namely docility and conformity. Dr. Topp wondered if the traits that hurt boys in the classroom actually fortify them for life later, and he said that to prevent boys from being feminized, schools need to place less premium on “girl” traits, and start rewarding students more for creativity and extra-verbal skills.

This analysis, of course, is dead-on, but don’t bother looking for it among the current news stories. You see, Dr. Topp’s article appeared in newspapers in December 1961. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=nlspAAAAIBAJ&sjid=_ecDAAAAIBAJ&pg=6627,799943&dq=robert-topp+and+schools+are+unfair+to+boys&hl=en

The fact that the “boy problem” not only is still with us but is even more pronounced today, almost fifty years later, tells us that, by most important standards, our sons have been second-class citizens at school for as long as anyone can remember, and until very recently, hardly anyone has ever given a damn.

Can anyone name even one significant initiative to increase the presence of male role models in our schools? But then again, it is politically correct to blink at the importance of male role models in the home, why should school be any different? Ironic, isn’t it? We remove male role models from our sons’ lives, then when our sons act up, we blame it on “patriarchy.”

Boys’ second-class status has always been just the way it is. Take corporal punishment, for example. As recently as the 1970s, it was a very common practice. Care to guess whether it was applied equally to boys and girls? In fact, many school districts expressly forbade spanking girls; boys were almost always fair game. In 1973, for example, California school boys were spanked 37,594 times. California school girls were spanked just 2,146 times. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=u-EzAAAAIBAJ&sjid=iTIHAAAAIBAJ&pg=6844,3383167&dq=37594+boys+spanked&hl=en

In what universe are boys 18 times more deserving of corporal punishment than their females peers? Reverse the genders and imagine the outcry that would have accompanied those statistics.

Sometimes, the rationales for disparate treatment were the legal equivalent of horse manure. “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” excluded boys long after it was obvious to fair-minded people that such discrimination had no place in a society where gender equality is the law of the land.

That didn’t stop the Ms. Foundation for Women from continuing to defend the indefensible. In 1994, its spokeswoman, Nell Merlino, trotted out this tired feminist mantra: “People don’t appreciate that girls need a special level of encouragement,” she clucked. “We know from the research when boys and girls are together, particularly in this [9-15] age group, boys get more attention.”

Right, Ms. Merlino. For one thing, the teachers who administered corporal punishment gave the boys 18 times more "attention" than girls.

Boys were told to suck it up and take it like little men. Take gym class, a traumatic experience for some youngsters. Boys almost always showered in a communal setting where there was no privacy (because, of course, no boy cares at all about modesty), presumably to prepare them for military life, something their female peers didn’t have to worry about. Too bad for those traumatized boys lagging in the puberty department. The girls, of course, were typically afforded shower compartments to protect their modesty.

Worse, some younger readers might find it bizarre that it was common for boys, but very rarely girls, to be forced to swim in the nude in gym class. Back in the ’40s, one Detroit school district came under fire fire from mothers when both boys and girls were forced to swim nude, albeit in separate gym classes. Can you guess which gender the mothers complained about? The girls, of course. One wrote: “We are all alarmed about this freedom the girls have been given. There is no telling what it could lead to and we want it stopped at once.”

As for the boys swimming nude? If adults had asked the boys in confidence, they would have learned that a fair number of them were traumatized by it. You know, the whole delayed puberty thing, unwanted bodily reactions, etc. But, again, the feeling was, “real boys” suck it up and swim in the nude. When a parent wrote to Dear Abby back in the ‘60s complaining because her 14-year-old son was told he would have to swim in the nude and the boy felt uncomfortable, Abby showed little of the warmth and sensitivity many associate with her today: “[H]e had better overcome his shyness about nudity in the presence of other boys,” she lectured, “or he is apt to be uncomfortable much of his life.” (Right. Because the first thing adult men do when they get together is show each other their penises. Thank goodness they forced us to swim naked when we were 14.)

As for school sports, well, entire books are written about that. When the federal government decided that girls had been historically deprived of their rightful opportunities to participate in sports, girls were permitted to try out for boys teams, even though this took spots away from the boys. Boys, however, typically were not permitted to try out for girls teams. The law in this area is complex, and while it is possible today, in some circumstances, for boys to play on girls’ teams, legally – not to mention culturally (a topic deserving its own post) – it is more difficult for a boy to play on a girls’ team than vice versa. This is so because, in sports, as elsewhere, the law doesn’t care as much about the harm to an individual boy as it cares about the rights of girls as a class. “It is the class of girls, not boys, with whom the government seeks to redress past discrimination and promote equality. It is girls, not boys, who have suffered and continue to suffer from discrimination and inequalities in athletics. . . . [C]ourts . . . have found that protecting the participation rights of girls as a previously discriminated against ‘class’ outweigh the rights of an ‘individual’ boy to play on a girls’ team.” See http://www.womenssportsfoundation.org/Content/Articles/Issues/Title-IX/C/Coed-Participation–Girls-Playing-on-Boys-Teams-and-Male-Versus-Female-Competition-The-Foundation-Po.aspx

So, at least in one area – sports – our sons’ second-class treatment is given an official justification, dubious though it may be. That’s more than boys’ second-class treatment is usually given. Most of the time, it is chalked up as ”just the way it is.”

I previously published this article in The Spearhead