Thursday, August 09, 2012

On David Brooks, the Taliban and the Boy Crisis At School

What a way to get back into the saddle after a vacation!  Someone sent me a link to David Brooks' July column about the need to change schools so that boys do better.  Or perhaps that boys do better than girls, assuming that boys (excluding minority boys) are already doing quite well?

 Brooks' prescription is this:

Some of the decline in male performance may be genetic. The information age rewards people who mature early, who are verbally and socially sophisticated, who can control their impulses. Girls may, on average, do better at these things. After all, boys are falling behind not just in the U.S., but in all 35 member-nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
But the big story here is cultural and moral. If schools want to re-engage Henry, they can’t pretend they can turn him into a reflective Hamlet just by feeding him his meds and hoping he’ll sit quietly at story time. If schools want to educate a fiercely rambunctious girl, they can’t pretend they will successfully tame her by assigning some of those exquisitely sensitive Newbery award-winning novellas. Social engineering is just not that easy.
Schools have to engage people as they are. That requires leaders who insist on more cultural diversity in school: not just teachers who celebrate cooperation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honor environmental virtues, but teachers who honor military virtues; not just curriculums that teach how to share, but curriculums that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp.

Bolds are mine.

Note the sly hint to the girls who would benefit from boot camps, too?  That there are boys who do better under the presumed cooperative model is ignored.  Assuming that it's cooperation at schools (is that the prevailing model?)  which causes the problem.  Also, I love the idea that using one model is social engineering, using the opposite model would not be.

But at last and at least here is one conservative writer who acknowledges that the boy crisis is not the fault of American feminists!  I've written myself sore on the topic, including the fact that more women than men graduate from college in Saudi Arabia and other similar places.  So kudos to Brooks on having learned enough to shift the goal posts a teeny weeny bit.  Perhaps next he will look at earnings statistics and realize that the reason more girls go to college is because girls must do so to earn as much as boys earn with just a high school certificate.  And so on.

I write about this now because of a piece of news about girls at school in an area of the world where the male values of competition, military hierarchies and a fierce desire to win are certainly dominant:

Far from fears that female education is on the decline after the Taliban campaign against girls’ schools, female students outclassed their male counterparts in the secondary school examination for 2012.
And participation itself was a success. In all 265,000 students sat the examinations, including 115,343 girls. The results were declared over a ten-day period earlier this month.
The results have come as a boost to authorities in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and nearby Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) regions of north Pakistan. “It’s great given the Taliban’s attitude towards female education,” KP Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain told IPS.
“About 700 schools were damaged by miscreants in the last five years in KP and FATA. Despite that girls have got top positions in the secondary school certificate (SSC) examination.” The top 15 positions went to girls. This meant an outright rejection of Taliban calls against women education, Hussain said.
In militancy-riddled Malakand division in KP, girls grabbed 10 of the 20 top positions. Malakand saw destruction of 181 schools from 2007 to 2009, among them 118 were girls’ schools.
“For one-and-a-half years I sat idle due to Taliban’s opposition to female education but since their defeat in 2009, I have been studying vigorously,” Farzana Bibi, who got second place in the Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education (BISE) in Swat, one of the seven districts of Malakand division, told IPS over telephone. “Now, I intend to become a doctor and serve the women patients in my area.” The BISE is the examining body conducting the SSC examination.
The results are dramatic given that the literacy rate for women in KP is 17 percent, and in FATA 43 percent, compared to the national Pakistani average of 68 percent.

Bolds are mine. The girl who ranked third best in the examinations wants to become a police officer so that she can protect the schools against Taliban.  (Sorry about the link being in Finnish.)

Now put these two pieces together and what do you get?  A contradiction!   I very much doubt that the schools in the heartland of Taliban favor girls or promote a cooperative model of education.  Rather, girls are actively and violently discriminated against.  What is, however, true in both KP and FATA on the one hand and the US on the other hand is that women need education to have access to good salaries.  Men have other alternatives though of course education benefits them, too.

Brooks and other right-wing conservatives have this odd blind spot when it comes to their usual argument that all gender differences are genetic and that nothing should be done about them.  That blind spot is when the gender differences benefit girls or women.  That's the time to change the environment.  (If you don't believe me, just check conservative writing on women's dearth in science and mathematics.)

I must add the usual reminder that I want boys to do well at school.  What I don't want is this conservative game of pretending that the only way we can achieve that is by making it harder for girls to do well, too.