09/23/2014 Jonathan Taylor

Affirmation and criticism of Marty Nemko’s article on boys’ education in Psychology Today

In these polarizing times, it is to our credit that we can occasionally find those with whom we both agree and disagree. With that I give you Dr. Marty Nemko’s recent article in Psychology Today titled “The Problem With Boys,” and my commentary on it. It begins:

What changes would you recommend if you were told that African-American children were:

  • four to eight times as likely to be drugged with Ritalin and other stimulants, which pediatrician Leonard Sax, calls ‘academic steroids.’
  • reading much more poorly than are other students.
  • three times as likely to commit suicide.
  • 2 1/2 times as likely to drop out of high school.
  • severely underrepresented in college and even more so among college graduates, thereby locking them out of today’s, let alone tomorrow’s professional-level jobs.

You’d likely invoke such words as ‘institutional racism’ to justify major efforts to improve African-Americans’ numbers. All of the above statements are true except for one thing: those statistics aren’t about African-American children. They’re about children of all races, indeed half of all children, half of our next generation: boys.

The unsourced data Nemko cites is just a wee bit off, methinks (see here for similar but more accurate numbers which also contain source citations). But this much is true: male students are performing poorer both in educational attainment and psychological well-being.

Also, as a general practice, I’d caution men’s advocates when directly comparing men and African-Americans as groups. In particular, I would emphasize that although what men and boys experience and suffer is not the same as blacks have historically experienced and suffered in terms of degree, the function of those experiences does at times bear certain similarities.

When a disparity hurts females or minorities, major efforts at redress are implemented. Why not with boys? In our politically correct world, if you point to an inequity against women or a minority, you’re considered heroic, but dare you point out a deficit suffered by males, you’re demonized as a whiner or anti-female.

Only in a world in which the normal worldview is that men and boys are not deserving of compassion would a mere voice for compassion for them be deemed “anti-female.” But such is the world in which we live.

Also, a brief digression on rhetoric: what is political “correctness” anyway?

We have been calling this culture of anti-male bias political “correctness” for decades. I would recommend not doing that any longer, unless you put the word “correctness” in scare quotes (as I always do, to satirize it). We should not  reinforce (even subconsciously or by accident) the idea that such attitudes are “correct,” because they are not.

Instead of calling it political “correctness,” let’s call it what it is: sexism. Let’s go ahead and cross that line. Let’s do away with the notion that these biases we describe are mere “errors in judgment” or procedural errors, but what they really are: moral flaws. It is not just institutional practice, but also institutional attitudes that must change. The fight for educational equity is as much a moral one as it is an academic one.

Continuing with Nemko’s article:

Our schools continue to get ever more feminized. Competition, one of boys’ favorite motivators, has largely been excised in favor of ‘cooperative learning’ (which ends up often meaning hat the bright and dedicated do the dull’s and lazy’s work).

I agree. Few students like “team” work for those reasons. And students are often happy (or simply happier) to work alone. Also, the relationship dynamics of small groups don’t always favor collaborative learning. If a group of four students contain three students who are close friends, the fourth student may often feel left out of their conversations and may drift away from the academic work.

Of course, navigating relationship dynamics is an essential facet of adult life, and students of both sexes should learn how to do this when young. But during early childhood, at a time when students simply haven’t had time to mature (and that goes for both boys and girls), group work – along with its inherent friend favoritism – may set some kids up for failure.

This is especially true for boys, given the fact that boys are not only more nonsocial, but also due to the fact that boys tend to develop friendships through competition more easily than girls. Group work, which prizes collaboration over competition, can compound this.

Recess, which active boys desperately seek to release pent up energy is increasingly replaced by yet another round of phonics. 

This is where Nemko loses me. Recess is certainly being replaced by study hall periods among late elementary and early middle-school students, which is consistent with the mentality of out-of-touch number-crunching administrators. But is Nemko arguing that recess periods are being replaced by phonics instruction at the early childhood (particularly the kindergarten through 2nd grade) level?

Phonics – instruction in the building blocks of language – is critical for boys to develop good verbal skills. Peg Tyre in The Trouble with Boys, Richard Whitmire in Why Boys Fail, and others such as Dr. Michael Gurian in Boys and Girls Learn Differently generally agree with this.

As the London Evening Standard also reports:

The use of more traditional phonetics-based lessons helps boys catch up with girls – even doing better on some tests – and prevents some children from needing ‘special’ schooling, according to new research findings.

Boys taught using synthetic phonics were able to read words significantly better than girls at the age of seven, with all pupils ahead of the standard for their age. Boys were 20 months ahead while girls were 14 months more advanced than expected. At the end of the study, boys’ reading comprehension was as good as that of the girls, but their word reading and spelling was better.

Yes, young boys do need what educators call “unstructured play” (play where they can run around freely and explore virtually at will),  but they also need phonics instruction. I don’t know why they are presented as mutually exclusive, however, and one should not come at the expense of the other.

Nemko continues:

The percentage of female K-12 teachers has risen to an all-time high:76.3 percent. In elementary school, it’s well over 90 percent. The main role model boys see in school is the custodian.

And when boys get home from school, the male role models get worse. Whether watching a sitcom, movie, cartoon, or commercial, the odds are good that the male is a buffoon or sleazebag while the female is savvy and confident.

Alright, if you’ve never heard this before, let me prep you for a common deflection of boys’ education issues. When you hear people talk about the lack of male role models in lower education, a common counterpoint is that female teachers have always dominated lower education – so what’s the big deal now?

Richard Whitmire made this argument in Why Boys Fail, but he overlooked two important factors:

  1. Never, since lower education became regarded as a universal human right in the West, has the ratio of female to male teachers been as big as it is now.
  2. Given the staggering rise of fatherlessness in the past several decades, never have boys who have lacked male role models at school been simultaneously deprived of male role models at home to anywhere near this degree before.

I also think it is worth inquiring into whether, when the ratio of female to male teachers reaches a high percentage, it reaches a “tipping point” whereby male teachers feel the need to self-censor/suppress their perspectives and teaching styles so as not to bug the female teachers around them.

Studies with such a hypothesis have been conducted concerning racial minorities on juries; if similar studies have been done regarding the tendency of male teachers I am unaware of them. That is not to say they do not exist, but if it is an understudied phenomenon I do think it would be an interesting area of inquiry.

Dr. Nemko also provides us with some ominous information:

Over my 29 years as a career and education counselor, I’ve noticed a dramatic shift in the boys and men I’ve counseled. When I started, most of them were confident and ambitious. Now, disproportionately, they’re despondent or angry, while the girls and women much more often feel the world is their oyster.

Yes, I think “despondent and angry” is a good description of young men from the 1990s onward. That’s definitely what I felt when I was that age, and many of my friends as well.

I grew up with the generation of schoolboys whose culture was cast in the shadow of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre – what I would call The Columbine Generation. This was also the age in which two trends – fatherlessness and rampant bullying among schoolchildren – had reached critical mass.

The 1990s was also the age in which Feminist ideology had arguably its greatest stranglehold on the public discussion on gender, given that internet had not yet been developed to the point of providing dissenting voices the power to speak out. In other words, it was a time in which – one way or another – many young men had internalized feelings of abandonment.

A mere four years after the Columbine High School massacre, this song – which resonated and became immensely popular among boys my age – was released. Go ahead and listen, and read the lyrics:

Sounds a lot like what Nemko was describing, doesn’t it?

Although I will disagree with Nemko on the phonics part, I agree with his following thoughts on education reform:

Schools claim to celebrate diversity yet insist on providing one-size-fits-all education. Whether in co-ed or single-sex classes, boys need boy-friendly instruction: more male teachers who have not been trained to de-boy boys, more competition, praise for boldness, more active learning (for example, drama and simulation) and less seatwork,  less relationship-centric fiction and more stories of adventure and heroism,  teachers’ accepting that boys will, on average, wiggle more than girls–and that does not require ongoing criticism, which, not surprisingly, leads to more oppositional behavior, to the school psychologist, to the little yellow bus of special education, and even more often to Ritalin.

There is a lot that can be unpacked in that paragraph, but for the sake of space I will leave it there. I’ll certainly be unpacking some of these ideas this fall at the Male Students in Peril conference at KSU.

Join us, if you can make it.

Jonathan Taylor
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Jonathan Taylor

Jonathan is Title IX For All's founder, editor, web designer, and database developer. Hailing from Texas, he makes a mean red beans n' rice and is always interested to learn new things.
Jonathan Taylor
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About the Author

Jonathan Taylor Jonathan is Title IX For All's founder, editor, web designer, and database developer. Hailing from Texas, he makes a mean red beans n' rice and is always interested to learn new things.

Comments (10)

  1. HQR3

    I can truthfully say I agree with everything in the above article. Another brilliant analysis.

    Also appreciate your digressions on rhetoric: The analogies men’s advocates make between the plight of males and that of black folk is at times overblown; calling something PC is as nebulous as the slippery notion of “sexual assault.”

    One thing, though, I’d like to see explored is the pernicious effect feminist doctrine has had on the education process itself. Just how many teachers, especially elementary school teachers, have been exposed to women/gender studies. I’m sure many of them see their male charges as patriarchs-in-training. (Thugs-in-training in black schools.) There is probably a lot of fem-inspired misandry floating around in the classroom.

    Maybe the pursuit of such data could be disguised as a survey on the undergraduate electives and duel majors of the education professionals. One can only hope.

  2. These teachers are totally driven by feminist ideology. They are destroying the “patriarchy” at its source, young men. “you deny a boy a education, you deny a man a future” My mother defending me against a feminist teacher in public school.

    Feminist current goal is to turn men into uneducated slave labour. This can only be done by removing men from white collars jobs, and to remove them from these jobs, you cant let them have a education.

    • anonymity

      “Destroy the male sex”through destroying boys.

    • Rob

      Absolutely correct ard Vark. Thats why the keep pushing CASA and rape hysteria. Its one more tool to harass male students and hinder men’s education. Less men with degrees means less competition for women trying to obtain high paying jobs – jobs which often require a college degree.

  3. “Why now?”. I suggest that there is a big difference between a female yeacher who has swallowed feminism’s pill and one who hasn’t. For instance, in grade school i had a teacher who, upon finding a boy punching a smaller boy, held the bully immobile so the bullied kid.could take.a few shots at him. Obviously this wouldn’t happen today.

  4. Whothehell Cares

    I only have one small bone to pick with this article. ” given the fact that boys are not only more antisocial,”

    I would like to suggest that the words anti-social be replaced with non-social. There is a big difference in these two behavioral attitudes.

    • While I do think boys are generally more anti-social, I agree that your suggestion of the word nonsocial better fits the context of what I’m trying to convey in this post. I’ve switched it out.

  5. Jonathan, why nitpick on the article when there will be enough feminist supporters who will attack it as misogyny? Instead why not focus on the achievement on the article that supports many of the points of AVFMS that is appearing in a mainstream publication? And I would imagine psychology is a field with a majority of females in it, making it more of an achievement and more critical to be published.

    • I think we have to create a consensus as to what instructional methods and strategies work best for male students at some point.

      I was very light in my “criticism,” however, so perhaps “disagreement” is a better word to put in the title.

      • You are correct that the bottom line is improving the success of boys in school and determining how to go about that.

        It makes me wonder, as women are quick to self righteously point out, that the mass shooters are always male. But what about the destruction of a generation of young boys by feminist influenced education policies, legal policies, and toxic cultural and social environment? Men are already the majority of homeless, suicides, early deaths. What will be the future for a generation of young men whose identity is shattered, positive male role models eliminated,and self esteem diminished? The passive/aggressive lashing out of feminists against the patriarchy is being targeted at the weakest in our society, young children – specifically boys. Certainly one would question their self righteousness in the context of this shameful tactic.


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