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What Do Boys Need from School?
"All in Alcott, Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?"
One of the central claims of Other Feminisms is that the world is the wrong shape for women. Much of our society is constructed with a male “typical user” in mind, and women are expected to find a way to fit that mold. Women need to be accommodated as women, through gender-conscious design. “Neutrality” tends to stay anchored to the male experience and shortchange women.
But there are places where the norms work better for women, and men need to be better accommodated as men. In Of Boys and Men,argues that schools are one of these ill-fitting institutions for boys, and that they might benefit from “redshirting” (starting a year later than girls do.
You had a lively conversation about this idea, and it seems only right to start with one of the male commenters:
This is harder to state correctly--most teachers and administrators are women, and they may be insufficiently tolerant of behavior that seems to them overly wild and violent, but is just the way boys do things. I'm scared to say "boys will be boys," because sometimes that's a cover for truly sub-human behavior. But there are kinds of shouting and shoving that seem very objectionable to your average middle-aged woman--especially one who's been trained to say "Use your words! Use your inside voice"--but which are, in fact, just fine. If the dads were there, they would intervene less (while monitoring to make sure it wasn't getting out of hand.)
I wonder to what extent this is a class thing. Are wild boys bothersome to middle-aged women in general, or to *middle class* middle-aged women?
Michael’s question about classism reminds me of one of my takeaways from JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. It seemed like his family, as he described them, shared the love language of violence.
I’ll say bluntly, I think that’s a bad language of affection. But it also seemed like it made it harder for outsiders to see or understand the real love they had for each other, since it was expressed in such an alien and alienating way.
I think Michael is right that this is a struggle for boys at a different scale. Guys usually aren’t braiding hair. They’re getting experiences of affection in more rough-and-tumble, puppyish ways: knocking each other over, cuffing a head, etc. If much of your day is spent formally, in classroom and in structured activities, there may be no room for joyful, loving roughhousing.
Andrew ofwas worried boys would face a cost Reeves left out:
Counterpoint: sure, this will improve boys' success in schools, but at the cost of burning one more year of their lives in school!
It's important to remember that while schooling (up to and including college, and especially grad school) is valuable and important, it's not a benefit. It's a cost.
Midge responded with another question about timing:
My first thought upon hearing of red-shirting boys is, if that's the problem, why not start girls' schooling earlier rather than boys' schooling later?
The time eaten up by our current education system is already quite punishing on the biological clock of women entering professions requiring postgraduate education. Our current system was one originally designed for boys' development, anyhow, not girls' -- and not even all boys': We're trying to make a system that evolved for male children of elites work for all classes and sexes. No wonder it's awkward.
This is something I do like about Reeves’s proposal. Our school system is probably poorly adapted to our present demands of children and parents. We wouldn’t built it this way from a clean slate, so meaningful change is likely to be more comprehensive and disruptive.
(The lowest hanging fruit is just not making teenagers go to school too early in the morning).
Mary ofnoted that the problems for boys don’t end at graduation:
I wonder if what drives the "sit still and be quiet" approach to education is the fact that our society values those kinds of jobs. If that's the case, there's an indirect way in which society favors women. Fertility differences play a big role in why the professional world devalues women, and that's a real thing, but it's also true that when you're pregnant, it is easier/safer to sit quietly and type than to bend over and lift.
Sarah Wheeler ofobserved that it’s more than just boys who benefit when these pressures are relieved:
I'm a school psychologist, and as soon as I found myself with a son began to worry about this. I see teachers and parents all of the time stigmatize boys who are just a little squirrely or impulsive in the younger grades. I do think that if we paid and trained teachers better, with the skills and resources to teach more flexible (Universal Design for Learning is one mode of this), classrooms would be better places not only to be a boy but to be disabled, neurodivergent, an EL, etc.
Two readers talked about how they keep these tensions in mind for their own kids. Courtney gave an example of how she approaches this as a homeschooler:
My son is 7 & 1/2 and I've found that teaching him to read is so much easier for both of us when I write his phonics lesson on our blackboard easel instead of having him sit down with a book. This gives him the freedom to walk around, jump up and down and move his body and he's working hard to figure something out. It was just too much to ask him to concentrate on something hard AND keep his body still. The only problem with this approach is that it's not really feasible to replicate in a school room with 20 - 30 kids.
Courtney hits the problem squarely with that last sentence. Some of the things we know work best simply cannot be scaled to the classroom size of a normal school or daycare. Instead, kids and teachers are treated as the problem, not the bind we place on them.
Indoors it consisted of two large rooms, a “noisy room” and a “quiet room.” The noisy room had an art table with paints and modeling clay, and another table dedicated to “model-making,” with donated cereal and shoeboxes, paper towel and toilet paper rolls, and lots of tape. In a corner, children could experiment with musical instruments of the rhythm and general-loudness sort: rattles, maracas, clappers, xylophones, drums, bells. A lofted structure like an indoor treehouse served variously, with changes of costume and props, as a kitchen, a rabbit hutch, a mechanic’s shop, a fire station, and a spaceship. A ball pit was the locus of noisy activity. Meanwhile, in the quiet room – about which I don’t remember hearing much, now that I think of it – children could page through picture books or play simple educational computer games.
Tessa added from her own experience:
I've found Charlotte Mason's educational philosophy to be immensely helpful for thinking through how best to raise boys in particular nowadays. It seems crucial to start out with the fact that every child is a person already, and that that personhood is a sacred thing. [...] Hence her more-famous recommendation for every kid, ideally, to have six hours outside everyday until the age of six, as well as various suggestions and methods for cultivating not only a keen attention to, but also a relationship with the world—with place (from trees to village to country), with particular trees and rivers and creatures, with siblings and neighbors, with stories and songs and books.
The big theme of these comments?
Men and women aren’t in a zero sum game. Both sexes face impossible demands from a culture made for widgets, not people, and those demands strain each sex differently.
P.S. Reeves offered a longer response to some critiques of his idea at his own substack.
And I am sneaking my spiciest take in here at the bottom. I predict if we did redshirt boys, and girls spent school years with boys a year older than they were, this would increase the rate of marriages.