Every once in a while, something happens to bring the plight of boys to the front of American consciousness.
It might be a book like one published recently recommending “redshirting” — delaying boys starting public school until age 6 as in Richard Reeves’, Of Boys and Men. Or it might be a shocking statistic like that announced in September of last year that males now make up only 40 percent of college graduates, down from 50 percent in the early 1980s.
Or it may be that among 15- to 24-year-olds who die by suicide, males are 80 percent. Usually, these male-related concerns are ignored or batted away by those who argue that the ill-defined, amorphous “patriarchy” or “toxic masculinity” socializes boys and must change for boys to improve. Normally, the disturbing news or fact evaporates from society’s awareness until a new piece of evidence about the declining educational and mental health status of boys comes to the fore.
In short, a widespread attitude of forgetfulness or neglect seems to be at work when it comes to confronting and addressing, in a sustained manner, the challenges boys face in schools, family and society.
To address the issues of boys in a more thoughtful way, the Santa Fe Boys Educational Foundation has brought dozens of speakers to Santa Fe for its Boys at Risk series of lectures and conferences since 2015. Last month, the most recent of these featured Leonard Sax, an internationally recognized author, family physician and psychologist who captures the importance of gender differences in his books Why Gender Matters, The Collapse of Parenting, Girls on the Edge and Boys Adrift.
The last of these, Boys Adrift, was the title of his recent six-hour online presentation. The foundation was especially interested in having Sax as a presenter because he carefully places this boy decline within the context of larger cultural issues. One key issue is U.S. society’s discomfort with the notion that the two genders are different in ways that matter and need to be accommodated for the sake of equity and fairness.
For the majority of boys, the culture’s rampant gender indifference is harmful. The male/female distinction is, says Sax, “one of the two great organizing principles of child development [the other principle being age].” He argues that by not recognizing gender differences, families, schools and other child-centered institutions miss key opportunities to address child educational and mental health issues more effectively.
The losers in the denial of gender differences are the many boys and young men, who do not graduate from high school, do not go to college or who engage in self-destructive behaviors.
So with this at the fore, Sax described why so many boys are adrift, focusing on the five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men. The five are changes in education over the last 30 years; the effect of video games on boys; the overmedication of boys for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder; endocrine disruptors from plastics; and the loss of guidance for how a boy can become a man in our current environment where parents, if they are still involved in boys’ lives, have lost influence or salience.
This last topic Sax described as the “revenge of the forsaken gods,” capturing the loss of the archetypal role of adult males in guiding boys to maturity.
Where lack of recognition of gender differences has had its earliest and strongest effect is in the beginning school years when many boys disengage from education. Sax drew our attention to the acceleration of the early elementary curriculum where reading and writing have been moved from first grade to kindergarten. Because of the lack of recognition of boys’ slower developmental timetable, the 5-year-old boys often begin to withdraw from learning at this point.
Add to this many boys’ greater need for movement, risk taking, competition, impulsiveness and physicality, none of which is well accommodated in the shift from experiential to didactic learning — the standard in classrooms today — and it’s easy to see why many boys do not fit the contemporary classroom.
New Mexico is hardly exempt from these problems of young male withdrawal from education. Looking at pre-pandemic statistics from the state Public Education and Higher Education departments, boys in this state are 10 percent less proficient in reading, 7 percent less likely to graduate from high school and 20 percent less likely to graduate from New Mexico colleges. In math, boys and girls perform equally poorly. Ignoring these statistics or accepting them as the norm is tantamount to saying that boys are inherently less educable than girls or less deserving of an education.
Is this the message New Mexico wishes to send to its youth?
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