- The Boy Problem: Educating Boys in Urban America, 1870–1970 by Julia Grant
Sometimes our responses to books are shaped by our expectations of them. I was very eager to read Julia Grant’s The Boy Problem because it pulls together a number of different scholarly literatures—the histories of children and youth, masculinity, recreation, education, and social reform—and addresses them in terms of modern concerns about the education of boys. After reading the book, I [End Page 263] am more ambivalent. It’s a very solid piece of scholarship that accomplishes what it sets out to do, but it breaks limited new ground.
The book focuses, as the subtitle indicates, on the challenges of educating boys in urban America between 1870 and 1970. It argues that, while we have a new awareness of the problem today, the issue goes back to the expansion of mandatory education in the nineteenth century, when educators began having to deal with boys who were perceived to be disorderly, truant, or slower-learning. In particular, the book focuses on boys from the ages of approximately 7 to 14 in the urban North, and it focuses on the ways in which immigrant youth were gradually incorporated into the education system while African American youth remained more marginalized.
Each of the six thematic chapters in The Boy Problem—presented in a roughly chronological order—is organized around problems boys posed for the educational system, changing understandings of boys’ nature, and efforts to resolve these problems. The book’s narrative begins by examining street children in nineteenth-century cities and by analyzing well-known institutions for them such as reformatories, placing-out agencies, orphan trains, and industrial schools. It presents compulsory education as a means of managing street children and rendering these other institutions less necessary. By the turn of the twentieth century, a social scientific literature on boys’ nature emerged, suggesting that boys were inherently unruly and that organized recreation could help control them. Reformers such as settlement house workers, leaders of boys’ clubs, and advocates of playgrounds all embraced notions of directed play. Each of these groups believed that a lack of opportunities for play contributed to delinquency and that organized physical activities—particularly team sports—could harness boys’ energy.
Schools also had to deal with problems associated with boys. Nonattendance was particularly an issue among ethnic youth, whose families often did not support compulsory education. The book insightfully explains how many cities created Parental Schools as a means of segregating truant boys from the regular school system. Drawing on evidence from boys’ own accounts and from investigations into Parental School conditions, the book shows how these institutions often ended up operating much like custodial reform schools. Special education programs, created in the first decades of the twentieth century, were also primarily for boys. The book uses boys’ own stories and other primary sources to analyze how, in the 1920s and 1930s, ungraded special education classes and specialized day schools for troublesome boys in cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago allowed schools to separate the more difficult students from regular classes and to operate more efficiently.
The Boy Problem shows that, in the twentieth century, the trajectories diverged for the children of immigrants and for African American youth. In the 1920s and 1930s, another wave of reformers sought to address concerns about gang violence by creating community-organizing programs. Most famously, the Chicago Area Project (CAP) sent street workers into urban areas with high levels of delinquency. The book uses accounts of these street workers, of agencies like CAP, and of boys themselves to show that, while boys sought to escape from difficult family situations and to assert their masculinity—often through defiance—ethnic youth were nonetheless gradually becoming incorporated into mainstream educational systems. For African American youth, however, struggles continued further into the twentieth century. At the same time as ethnic youth were becoming accepted, the Great Migration brought more African American youth into northern cities where they encountered [End Page 264] racial segregation...