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Everyone knows the girls are clobbering the boys in school. They get higher marks and graduate at higher rates. Women have stormed the gates of medicine and law. They've all but taken over pharmacy and veterinary work. They are focused, purposeful and diligent. Their brothers, meanwhile, are in the basement playing video games.

How lopsided have things become? In the most prestigious programs at some of our leading universities, the gender ratio has reached 70:30. Men still dominate the hard sciences and maths, but, on the rest of the campus, they seem to be headed toward extinction.

Whatever it is that boys need to achieve success, a lot of them aren't getting it. But what do they need? I sat down with several people who think about this question every day – Jim Power, the principal of Upper Canada College; his colleagues Scott Cowie and Mary Gauthier; and Brad Adams, executive director of the International Boys' Schools Coalition.

"Part of the boys' crisis is that the culture doesn't like them," Mr. Adams says. Our culture is deeply uncertain about the value of masculinity, and even less sure about how to preserve and protect its positive elements while also encouraging boys to adopt more fluid gender roles.

And despite the new gender fluidity, the differences between what boys need and what girls need are often vast. One example: In order to do well, it's much more important for a boy to have a good relationship with the teacher. Another: Boys will only stay engaged as long as the work interests them; they're much quicker to tune out.

Boys' existential issues are different from girls'. For a boy, the two most important life questions are: Will I find work that's significant? And will I be worthy of my parents? When boys themselves are asked what they need, they say: I need purpose. I need to make a difference. I need to know I measure up. I need challenge. Above all, I need a meaningful vocation.

No wonder so many boys are so miserable. The modern world of extended years in school and delayed adulthood cuts them off from what they need most. As Adam Cox, a clinical psychologist who interviewed hundreds of boys across the English-speaking world, writes: "The primary missing ingredient in [their] lives – the opportunity that separates them from a sense of personal accomplishment, maturity, and resilience – is purposeful work."

Boys long to be part of something bigger than themselves. And the bigger and more challenging the task, the happier they are. "If you tell 10 boys you need volunteers to go downtown and work all night on a big, dirty, tough job, and you still expect them to show up at school the next day, they'll all jump up and volunteer," says Ms. Gauthier.

Boys also need to imagine themselves in heroic situations. When girls are asked about Vimy Ridge, they say, "Whew, it must have been horrific." When boys are asked, they imagine what they would have done if they'd been there. "Our most powerful assembly is on Remembrance Day," says Mr. Power. "Every boy is thinking to himself: How would I have measured up?"

Boys love rituals, trophies and tradition. Those also make them feel part of something bigger than themselves.

But, in the modern world, boys are often treated as a problem. The dominant narrative around difficult boys – at least in the public school system – is that they're unteachable, unreachable, disruptive and threatening. Many commentators – men as well as women – blame male culture itself for the problems with boys. In their view, what we need to do is destroy the death star of masculinity and all the evil that goes with it. What we need to do is put boys in touch with their emotions and teach them to behave more like girls.

This argument might make some sense – if you're someone who believes that masculinity is nothing but a social construct. But people who care about real boys know that's not true. They know you have to celebrate boys' boyness – and work with it. Many boys' schools are trying to do just that.

Several public school systems have launched all-boys' schools for failing boys. In New York, the Eagle Academy for Young Men is achieving impressive results for minority boys in a tough neighbourhood. These schools demand a lot. Their ethos is: We'll help you succeed, but we'll be tough on you, and you must claim responsibility. (By contrast, the attitude of Ontario's public schools toward difficult boys is: We'll let you pass if you leave us alone.)

If boys are failing schools and schools are failing boys, it's really not too hard to see some of the reasons why. They really are fish out of water. Before the Industrial Revolution, boys spent their time with fathers and uncles, often engaged in strenuous physical activity. Now they spend their time in the world of women, sitting behind desks. If schools threw out the desks, they'd probably be a lot happier.

But schools can't give them everything they need. Boys also need the company of men – men who will guide, instruct, esteem, respect and understand them. When asked about the happiest experience of their lives, boys often say it was the time they made something with their fathers. Their mothers matter, too – but, sometimes, there's no substitute for Dad.