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Let's give the boy(s) a hand

Dear Mr. _______,

My son let me know about the meeting the class had yesterday concerning some girls that were feeling left out of the recess soccer games. I love our school so much, and I'm so glad that you all help the kids work through issues of exclusion and bullying. However, it sounded to me like this instance was used as an occasion to address broader issues of patriarchy in our society. Far be it from me to deny issues of historical patriarchy in our society more generally, but I would like to make the case that addressing this age group as a part of that phenomenon is factually inaccurate. I've been lucky enough through my work to be privy to some information that you might find surprising, but, I hope, also quite helpful in dealing with boys as an educator.

First, while men may seem to have the upper hand in many areas of life, education is not one of them. Here is the work of Christina Hoff Sommers on the alarming state of male education failure at the elementary and secondary level. Boys are far less likely to have good homework habits, study abroad, take AP classes, or sign up for high level math classes. But they are far, far more likely to be be diagnosed with ADHD, be suspended, drop out, or successfully commit suicide. They have worse grades and are less likely to even take the SAT. Here's a Forbes article showing the almost 40-60 ratio of men to women in college, and this trend continues at the graduate level as well. It now looks like these failures, whether more broadly cultural or more specifically educational, are coming home to roost. A new concern is a sharp decline in employment among young men in the U.S., discussed here in Foreign Affairs. Many economists are declaring this the national emergency that no one's talking about.

My son mentioned that you discussed some broader claims as well, concerning the gender wage gap, the popularity of women's sports, and possessive male attitudes in dating relationships. Once again, my background in political and economic philosophy has given me a front row seats to the academic debates over the data.

When it comes to the gender wage gap, the economics are actually crystal clear, and have been all along: here's Claudia Goldin, Harvard Economist, explaining why the "77 cents on the dollar" claim is wrong. It's actually quite simple - that number simply reflects all full-time male workers wages on the average, compared with all full-time female workers wages on the average. It just so happens that women choose more flexible work, work fewer hours, and come in and out of the work force more often than men. (Side-note: it's extremely frustrating for economists to keep having to explain this year after year while people keep repeating the same statistic). I guess our underlying cost-benefit analysis between time and money might be the result of sexism, but I know it wasn't in my case, when I chose to go into academia instead of business so that I could have a more flexible schedule for family reasons. Since I'm one of the women making these sorts of choices, I admit, I don't like to be judgey about it.

As to the popularity of women's sports, are we sure that our ignorance is due to sexism? This article from Time magazine argues that while current sexism may be a factor, the simpler explanation is that these franchises are very new, and are simply still in the process of garnering a solid fan-base. (I do have to give a little shout-out to my boy on this one - he knew that UConn was in the NCAA women's championship, which was the question thrown out in class. Now if he would just speak up more...).

Finally, I was truly surprised that the teachers brought up to the boys the tendency of men to speak possessively about 'making' someone their girlfriend and the like. I can tell you with 100% certainty that in this particular arena the boys are way behind the girls at this age (12) and in this generation. While your comments to the boys might have been perfectly appropriate in a few years, they are far more often the recipients of romantically assertive behavior from the girls than the other way around, at least among my bookish son and his compatriots. While I overheard zero talk about girls at a recent sleepover, there was a lot of hilarity about Stephen Colbert's coverage of the Republican convention. I've noticed both on-line and in person a growing concern among parents about how to handle this phenomenon; one close friend of mine is dealing with an abusive, stalker girlfriend whose entrance into her son's life has resulted in his failure to complete high school. My son is not a snowflake (or at least, he won't be once I'm finished with him!). He can handle being told something with which he disagrees. But I'm sure we can all relate to the frustration we feel when being 'accused' of the very thing that we feel victimized by. When my younger son was approached by a girl that he wasn't interested in, I overheard my older son giving him advice: "I know it's really hard, but you just have to say "No!". Say "Thank you, but no" or they'll never leave you alone. I know it feels like you're not being nice, but if you don't do this, they'll never leave you alone."

If I had my druthers, when some students exclude other students from a game, the situation would be handled between the individuals, and not in terms of an identity group or a social agenda. There's no way to avoid the fact that there is an ideological divide here. From my perspective, if being an oppressor is presented as an inescapable part of a masculine identity, then it just sucks to be a boy - there's no way to get it right. But if individuals can relate to other individuals respectfully no matter what (raising a fist to our sad history!), then boys can rise to the occasion and become gentleman. I'm an old-fashioned liberal, which isn't trendy at the moment, I know. But just because it's an old idea doesn't make it any less likely to be correct.

Thank you for your consideration,

Rachel Douchant


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