By far the most successful reform in education I can think of, was the shift in attitudes that unleashed the academic talents of female students. As recently as the 1970s, when my older sister was in school, studying the sciences in the hope of training to become a vet, she had to put up with being told ‘well, really, girls just can’t do physics’. This not from an interfering relative, or opinionated bystander, but from the physics teacher. And, if challenged, he perhaps might have pointed out that he had the data on his side. Very few young women were doing well in physics, just as very few were going on to get degrees in science, or commerce, or law. Academic opportunities for women were limited, because we were somehow just sure that was the natural order. Boys and girls were different, they liked different things, they had different aptitudes, and serious study, well that fell on the boys’ side of the ledger. And, as long as we believed that particular construction of gender difference, the results would dutifully follow, so deepening the prejudice.
Try telling a bunch of teenagers in a co-ed school today that things were ever organised like this, and they will struggle to believe you. It runs contrary to their everyday experience, where girls don’t just match their male counterparts academically, but on average dominate them. In the classroom girls are confident, vocal, assertive and ready to learn. In New Zealand, there is now more female success at every level of the national qualifications systems, and females outnumber males at university. The change, when it came, was staggeringly quick. It turned out, surprise surprise, that girls are really smart, and schools, in failing to recognise this, had been really stupid.
Now, of course, we hear concern about the relative underachievement of boys. It’s not that boys have necessarily fallen behind, it’s just that, for centuries, they didn’t have anybody to compete with. Now they have, it turns out that being the smarter sex is pretty hard. There are, predictably, all sorts of groups focussing on this problem. From educational researchers through to self-help gurus, everybody, it seems, has an opinion on what we need to do to rescue the poor male, who is struggling to keep up. There are any number of important aspects to this debate, but let me just focus on one thing that has me puzzled. Why is it that the movement for boys’ education has so completely failed to learn the lessons from feminism’s success?
The women’s movement, at least with regard to children’s education, had little trouble identifying the problem. Rather than emphasising all the things that make girls different from boys, they reminded us of the things that made them the same. They didn’t deny difference, but nor did they highlight it. The buzz-phrase became, Girls Can Do Anything. It wasn’t, ‘please sir, you are operating a masculine institution and we need to change your practices before we can participate meaningfully in this game.’ It was, ‘move aside, I want to get to the Bunsen burner.’ Not, ‘female values are undervalued, we need university degrees in cross-stitch’, but ‘your stereotype of female interest and ability massively underestimates the contribution we could be making.’ It was smart and it was effective, and piggy backing on the wider social movement, it transformed untold lives. Reform at its very best.
What then would a male equivalent of this movement look like? Wouldn’t it’s kicking off point be that the existing stereotypes of males are tragically limiting? Wouldn’t the Boys Can Do Anything campaign highlight the fraud of imposing boring masculine caricatures on our young boys? Wouldn’t it remind parents, teachers and children alike that boys can sit quietly and attend to the information being delivered, that boys can be gentle and co-operative, that they can fall in love with words, with movement, with costume and ritual? Wouldn’t it be about doing for boys in our classrooms what feminism did for girls, freeing them from the shackles of expectation and unleashing their talents on the world?
And yet, instead, we have a focus that is almost entirely negative. Boys, we are told, are struggling because schooling has become feminised. Boys need to move about, they need rough and tumble, competition, they don’t like reading, they prefer the flitty flash of the computer to the slower contemplation of books. They don’t like working co-operatively. They are, in short, The Flintstones. The suggestions currently being put to raise male achievement are the intellectual equivalent of the women’s movement demanding more sewing and baking classes in schools, so that the poor delicate little girls could feel more at home. Only, women weren’t stupid enough to go down that path. We men, I submit, really ought to see if we can’t learn a little from that.
I’ve spent most of my time over the last three years at home helping to raise my twin boys. People told me, no matter what you do, boys just turn out to be boyish, it’s in the genes. Quite apart from this being an approach to genetics that is a good twenty years out of date, I find the more I consider this, the less it fits with my own experience as a parent. Little boys love to dance, and dress up, and bake and listen to endless stories. If you give my boys a stick, they will turn it into a guitar. Their idea of a male role model is David Bowie circa 1972, splendid in eye shadow and jump suit. Boys aren’t stupid by nature: they are creative, empathetic, careful souls, just like girls are. Our job as men, then, is to help them raise their gaze to more distant horizons. This was feminism’s gift to us, a working model for self-improvement. So why not use it? I refuse to believe it’s because we’re too stupid.