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Learning the Hard Way

Masculinity, Place, and the Gender Gap in Education

Edward W. Morris

Publication Year: 2012

An avalanche of recent newspapers, weekly newsmagazines, scholarly journals, and academic books has helped to spark a heated debate by publishing warnings of a “boy crisis” in which male students at all academic levels have begun falling behind their female peers. In Learning the Hard Way, Edward W. Morris explores and analyzes detailed ethnographic data on this purported gender gap between boys and girls in educational achievement at two low-income high schools—one rural and predominantly white, the other urban and mostly African American. Crucial questions arose from his study of gender at these two schools. Why did boys tend to show less interest in and more defiance toward school? Why did girls significantly outperform boys at both schools? Why did people at the schools still describe boys as especially “smart”?

            Morris examines these questions and, in the process, illuminates connections of gender to race, class, and place. This book is not simply about the educational troubles of boys, but the troubled and complex experience of gender in school. It reveals how particular race, class, and geographical experiences shape masculinity and femininity in ways that affect academic performance. His findings add a new perspective to the “gender gap” in achievement.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Series: Series in Childhood Studies

Title Page, Copyright

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p. vii

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pp. ix-x

I have benefited from the help of many people in writing this book. First, I would like to thank the administrators, teachers, office staff, parents, and students of the high schools I call Clayton and Woodrow Wilson. While I am critical of much...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-19

The headline of Newsweek magazine shouts with breathless urgency, “The Boy Crisis. At Every Level of Education, They’re Falling Behind. What to Do?” This national cover story is just one of an avalanche of articles and books on what some have called the...

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2. Respect and Respectability

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pp. 20-34

Gender is socially constructed. This perspective underscores the production of gender at the local level of interaction, shaped by particular social forces that manifest there. Thus, it was critical to my project to examine the contours of local context...

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3. The Hidden Injuries of Gender

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pp. 35-48

Students at Woodrow Wilson and Clayton faced many difficulties and disadvantages, and their gender ideals and pathways to becoming a man or a woman developed within these challenging contexts. Their gendered responses to life challenges produced different...

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4. Too Cool for School: Masculinity and the Contradictions of Achievement

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pp. 49-76

Donte, a tenth grader at Woodrow Wilson, approached life with effusive optimism. He was relentlessly outgoing—constantly talking and joking with other students and teachers and instantly befriending me early in my fieldwork, even though he hardly knew me. The more I hung...

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5. Rednecks and Rutters: Rural Masculinity and Class Anxiety

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pp. 77-101

When compared to girls, boys at both Woodrow Wilson and Clayton affected a more casual approach to schoolwork, resulting in less academic diligence and lower performance. This contrived carelessness was a way of doing masculinity, a response to perceptions...

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6. Clownin’ and Riffin’: Urban Masculinity and the Complexity of Race

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pp. 102-127

Economic restructuring in the rural community of Clayton created a sense of class uncertainty, which impelled boys to demonstrate the strength of masculinity through hegemonic ideals of physical power and toughness. In crafting masculinities, these boys also crafted social...

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7. “Girls Just Care about It More”: Femininity and Achievement As Resistance

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pp. 128-149

Courtney, a confident, perceptive girl at Woodrow Wilson, did not hesitate to disagree when I asked her if the man should be a family’s main provider. Courtney had been through a lot in her seventeen years. Her parents had both dropped out of high school...

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8. Friday Night Fights

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pp. 150-168

When I first told Kevin at Clayton that I was writing a book about high school student life, he responded immediately, “Well, you’ll have to put a lot in there about fighting.” Although his statement might appear to be flippant, I found that fighting...

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9. Conclusion

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pp. 169-177

Schools are important sites for the construction of gender, forging meanings of masculinity and femininity that guide academic behaviors and outcomes. The idea that doing gender influences educational processes and helps explain why boys and girls perform...

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Appendix: Research Methods: Process and Representation

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pp. 179-186

“Let me know when you figure everyone around here out, because I’ve lived here my whole life and I still can’t explain it!” said Mr. Kerr as he spotted me in the hallway at Clayton. Such playful chiding became a running joke between Mr. Kerr and me throughout...


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pp. 187-189


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pp. 191-199


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pp. 201-212

E-ISBN-13: 9780813553702
E-ISBN-10: 0813553709
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813553696
Print-ISBN-10: 0813553687

Page Count: 224
Illustrations: 8 figures
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Series in Childhood Studies
Series Editor Byline: Edited by Myra Bluebond-Langner, Ph.D., Founder of Rutgers University Center for Children and Childhood Studies See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 808730643
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Learning the Hard Way

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Sex differences in education -- United States -- Case studies.
  • High school boys -- United States -- Social conditions -- Case studies.
  • Men -- United States -- Identity -- Case studies.
  • Blacks -- Race identity -- United States -- Case studies.
  • Academic achievement -- United States -- Case studies.
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