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  • Why Jimmy Isn't Failing:The Myth of the Boy Crisis
  • Cara Okopny (bio)

Jimmy is a good student, but he is bored and struggles in English class. He is uninterested in class readings, and his teachers fail to find humor in his rambunctious behavior. Jimmy's parents argue that his needs and the needs of other boys like him are ignored in the U.S. education system. They argue that Jimmy's brain works differently from those of his female classmates, and because his classes have become "feminized," Jimmy is falling behind his female classmates and facing an educational crisis. But Jimmy's problems are not due to any pervasive "boy crisis." Instead, Jimmy's advocates have imagined a crisis, creating a contentious classroom climate for feminist teachers. I contend that this perceived crisis is increasingly leading to a divisive learning environment for teachers and students.

A recent flurry of reporting in mainstream media argues that boys are drowning in a female-centered U.S. education system. According to proponents of the boy crisis argument, boys are just biologically and developmentally different from girls, and it is educators' responsibility to teach to this perceived difference. The U.S. education system, they contend, is failing boys by failing to recognize innate differences in the way boys and girls learn. Boy crisis advocates argue for the adoption of boy-friendly strategies that promote "boys' ways of learning," and propose single-sex education as a potential remedy.

Herein, I present two analytical constructs that may serve to assist feminist teachers in the deconstruction of the boy crisis argument. Using these constructs, I explain that boy crisis ideology may influence the decisions of policymakers and parents, altering the ability of teachers to create an equitable classroom climate. In the Individual or Student-Based Model, I deconstruct the argument that boys are struggling academically because their brains are biologically different from those of girls—resulting in poor grades and low male college enrollment. Using an Educator-Based Model, I counter the argument that boys are struggling academically because schools have become overly feminized. Finally, I address Policy Changes, outlining potentially misinformed and simplistic policy formulations which may result from public advocacy of a boy crisis. I address the suggestion that single-sex education is the best way to ameliorate [End Page 216] a boy crisis. In rebuking the major boy crisis arguments, I hope to provide feminist teachers with the tools necessary to combat these arguments from colleagues, parents, and administrators, and encourage the power of daily feminist activism.

I. Individual Perspective: Biological Determinants

Boy Crisis Claims:

  • • Boys' brains are biologically different from girls' brains.

  • • Boys are struggling academically because of biological aptitudes.

  • • Male college enrollment numbers are down, which implies the failure of primary and secondary education to adequately prepare male students.

  • • Males dominate scientific fields due to genetic predispositions.

A main contention of boy crisis advocates is that boys' brains are biologically different from girls' brains. Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson claim that, "there are two clear biological differences [emphasis added] between boys and girls. Girls' verbal abilities, on average, mature faster than boys': they talk earlier and more fluently. The second difference is that boys tend to be more physically active than girls, moving faster and staying in motion longer" (12). Kindlon and Thompson argue that these factors prevent boys from doing well in the standard American educational model, which encourages dialogue, reflection, and compliance. According to boy crisis theorists, this educational model tends to favor girls' biological aptitudes.

But are there clear biological differences? Many boy crisis advocates posit scientific theories as absolute fact and deny the notion that scientists may construct their theories to confirm their own observations. For example, the corpus callosum (CC)—a bundle of nerve cells linking the left and right brain hemispheres—is often used to explain biological differences between women and men. Some scientists point to the size of the CC to explain why women do not pursue higher levels of math and physics, or why women's intuition may be more developed than men's, while others point to the thickness of the CC to explain other gendered traits (Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the...


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