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Failing Boys: Part 1 of 6

Part 1: Failing boys and the powder keg of sexual politics Add to ...

It’s no mystery that talk of males in need can become a powder keg of sexual politics, said Paul Cappon, president and CEO of the Canadian Council on Learning. “We don’t like to talk about it, because we think it’s denigrating the achievements of females, but that’s not the case,” he said. “You have to ask what is happening, and you have to ask why. It’s a head in-the-sand, politically correct view to say there’s no problem with boys.”

Theories abound to explain the new gender gap in education – slower brain development, video games that zap away study time, peer pressure, a lack of male role models at school and at home, and sons parented differently than daughters.

Compelling insight comes from Statistics Canada’s ambitious Youth In Transition Survey, which in 2000 began tracking 30,000 15-year-olds at 1,000 schools and 23,000 youths between the ages of 18 and 20. It finds that while overall marks, reading ability and study habits are the top three predictors of which teenager will go to university, parental expectations rank fourth.

Nearly 70 per cent of parents said they expected their 15-year-old daughters would complete a university degree. Yet only 60 per cent had the same expectation of their 15-year-old sons.

“I think too many of us accept the failure of boys, we say, ‘Well, that’s just the way boys are,’ there’s a social impulse in that direction, that even our expectations are lower,” Dr. Cappon said. “We don’t pay nearly enough attention to their needs and aspirations, take seriously their interests, and what motivates them, whether it’s reading comics or science fiction. It isn’t at all clear that schools have taken account of that.”

In 2002, Toronto youth psychologist Fred Mathews organized the First National Conference on the Status of Male Children in Canada. It was the culmination of two decades of research showing the struggles of males, from the earliest days of childhood, are under-reported, understudied and ignored.

“We really don’t know a lot about boys, we make a lot of assumptions about male children, but we don’t know,” said Dr. Mathews. “In the playground, we pick up girls who fall down and give them a hug; with a boy, we brush him off and send him on his way.”

Dr. Mathews hoped to hold a boys conference every year, and to tackle the education question head-on. But he was unable to raise the money to hold another one.

Canada’s youth survey found boys are more likely to say they feel disengaged with school, to spend less time studying or none at all, and to report that neither they nor their friends plan to go to university.

Dr. Cappon suspects the new gender gap in education could be a harbinger of social and economic upheaval if males drift to the fringes of productivity and women have to be both primary breadwinners and child-bearers.

Prof. Bourne argues that society adapts. Back when the first classes of women began graduating from Dalhousie, she says, people worried that women would stop getting married. Girls have always viewed a university degree as the ticket to higher earnings, she says, but only in recent decades are they “reaping the benefits” of their hard work. And only now, with the loss of manufacturing jobs, has boys’ school performance become an issue.

She feels the story of boys struggling in school has been “overemphasized,” when many boys are doing quite well. (Indeed, some 32 per cent of boys are A students, a distinction that applies to more than 46 per cent of girls.)

Last fall, University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera told the Edmonton Journal that as a female leader and visible minority, she hoped to be an advocate for young white men, calling their decline in universities a “demographic time bomb.”

Angry students put up 300 posters around campus a few days later, likening the university president to King Kong. “Women are attacking campus,” they read. “Only white men can save our university.”

“It got a little testy,” Dr. Samarasekera recalled.

But without drawing more men to postsecondary education, she feels, the work force will lack diversity, women and men will lack compatible mates, especially as the economy shifts to one of mind over manufacturing.

Dr. Samaraskera described how her daughter, a lawyer, had been a self-starter where schoolwork was concerned. Her son “took a little more time to figure out what he wanted.” Today he’s training to be a surgeon, but, she says, “I was on him all the time.”

She feels more young men have to hear about the benefits of education, that their minority status in university is not a reflection of intelligence, but interest. Advances women made in education could now serve as a template for helping boys, she said: “We should take a page out of the book of what we did years ago.”

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