The Magazine

Boyz n the Book

Johnny can read, but won't, and who can blame him?

Oct 27, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 07 • By MARY GRABAR
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A Rip Van Winkle waking up from a 30-year nap on a college campus today would notice a strange change in the student body. Most of the students walking past him would be women.

A generation ago, women made up less than half the student body. But in 2005 they made up 57 percent of total fall enrollments, and the Department of Education estimates the gender discrepancies will increase every year in the foreseeable future. Also, once they are in college, women are more likely to finish. In 2005-06, graduation rates favored women by 26 percent in terms of earning bachelor's degrees, and 33 percent in master's degrees. Even among doctorates, where men still hold a slight advantage, women are projected to eclipse them in 2014.

Advanced Placement high school classes provide a good barometer for determining who will go on to college, and here, too, women surpass men. Females make up 64 percent in English literature and 63 percent in English language and composition. They outdo males significantly in history (United States, European, and world), art history, and the romance languages. Only in certain classes, mainly in mathematics and advanced sciences, do boys exceed girls: They hold a clear lead in computer science (83 percent), physics (65 percent to 78 percent in higher levels), advanced calculus (59 percent), and economics, although females equal them in Calculus A/B and beat them in biology, environmental science, and psychology.

Also, at the high school level, we see the same outcomes for boys and girls. For instance, the gender gap in reading scores widened between 1992 and 2005: According to the Department of Education, it grew from 10 points among 12th graders (297 for girls vs. 287 for boys) to 16 points (295 vs. 279). Writing skills seem to follow reading levels, according to a 2005 DOE study that showed that high school seniors who read for fun "almost every day" scored an average of 165 on writing assessments while those who "never or hardly ever" read for fun scores of only 136. While the gap in recent years has closed, this month's National Assessment of Educational Progress report showed a yawning 18-point gap between girls and boys.

Further data suggest that college women perform so much better not because of intelligence but because of study habits. College women are 35 percent more likely to study daily and 23 percent more likely to read their textbooks thoroughly, according to a report by the Association of American Publishers. They also do more voluntary reading, as the 2007 National Endowment for the Arts survey on reading showed. They also read much more nonliterary material than boys do. While from 1992 to 2002 levels of voluntary literary reading--one novel, short story, play, or poem in the past year--fell off among all age groups, the largest drop came among young adults 18 to 24. But the drop among young males was three times as large as for young women, with declines from 55 percent to 43 percent, compared with 63 percent to 59 percent among women.

No doubt, many factors play in girls' superior performance in grades and graduation, and the reading that accompanies them. Many basic behaviors of boys work against them in academic environments. They have more discipline problems than girls, they play more sports, and they spend more hours working and being outdoors.

The University of North Carolina suggests one answer on its website, where it acknowledges the problems boys are having with reading. The website connects these problems to a lack of male influence: "Socially," it explains, "boys have few male reading role models at home or school. Most librarians and teachers are women; mothers read to children more frequently than fathers." The authors acknowledge, too, the lack of "masculine" books that would appeal to boys on such topics as sports, war, and
competition.

Those interests explain why boys like video games. They present a "quest in which an imperiled hero tries to find clues or treasure and earn advantages so he can go to the next level," according to Tom Newkirk, director of the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes. It's the action, danger, and purpose in a competitive arena that interests boys. Boys like conflict, tests of strength, and strategy in their play. Girls prefer games and books that tend toward the virtues of cooperation and sensitivity.

But when we turn to those responsible for promoting reading we find that they promote those virtues that appeal to girls. Literacy Matters, whose purpose, according to its web page, is "to improve middle literacy development," tells teachers that adolescents like books about "finding one's self, the search for direction in their life, and becoming independent" and "resolving conflict, either within the self or with another person," as well as "learning about different places, cultures, times, and ethnicities" and "addressing problems in the social order."

Boys prefer a definitely un-sensitive Conan the Barbarian, or G.I. Joe, or Huckleberry Finn, and without regard to his Indo-European heritage, to a heroine whose life story involves being a "survivor" after bearing her father's baby at age 12, and then becoming pregnant by him again at age 16. This is the story of Precious Jones in Push, a book recommended on the American Library Association's website for young adult readers as one of the 25 "Outstanding Books for the College Bound." It involves a "dedicated teacher,
and classmates who understand" at an alternative school. Another book, My Heartbeat, has this enticing blurb: "Can Ellen get the boy who loves her brother?"

of the 25 books on this list, 18 are novels or memoirs. The protagonists in 14 of these are female and, overwhelmingly, the accompanying blurbs describe such plots involving conflicts of a personal nature, with emotional resolutions. One of the few books that feature male protagonists, Forgotten Fire, is described as a "touching and heart-wrenching portrait of pain and triumph" during the Armenian Genocide while Postcards from No Man's Land is about 17-year-old Jacob's "self-discovery."

No books on this list offer soldiers, male athletes, or adventurers.

Syllabi of classes in library science, linked on the ALA's web page, reveal what future librarians study. At the University of Iowa, one class, "Trends and Issues in Literature for Young Adults," includes such required reading for librarians-in-training as: Born Confused; Rainbow Boys; how i live now; Stoner & Spaz; Vegan, Virgin, Valentine. And while the course description acknowledges a focus on the challenges of contemporary culture, some of these kinds of books--like the explicitly homoerotic play Angels in America, assigned to students at a high school in Illinois, and Prep, a coming-of-age novel assigned to 12-year-olds in California--have made headlines recently.

Sandra Stotsky, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, asserts, "The research on children's reading interest consistently shows that boys like to read nonfiction, especially historical nonfiction (biographies, books on important wars/battles), adventure stories, books on sports, books on facts, and science fiction." But when Forrest Hills, in my own DeKalb County, Georgia, recommends nonfiction books for students in grades seven through nine, the list skews heavily toward those about
women: Rosie the Riveter, Roseanne Barr, Sandra Day O'Connor, Frida Kahlo, Marian Wright Edelman, Oprah Winfrey, and two each on Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Hillary Rodham Clinton,
with series of books on women explorers and women inventors.

Likewise, the pedagogical method
of treating these books reflects a feminine, not to say feminist, outlook. The popular Prentice-Hall high school English textbook emphasizes collaborative and associative learning with a series of questions garnering emotional responses at the end of each unit. For example, students are asked to "respond," "recall," "interpret," "infer," and "take a position" after each selection. These selections, however, are chosen for their messages and are surrounded by editorial material like this passage that appears after "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" in the 11th grade book: "The senseless violence, death, and destruction Ambrose Bierce witnessed during the American Civil War (1861-1865) convinced him that war was terrible and futile."

The following "Unit," on the period 1914-46, of the two world wars, is edited by the antiwar Vietnam-era writer Tim O'Brien and entitled "Disillusion, Defiance, and Discontent." Other school districts even prescribe collaboration and sensitivity in their policy statements. The DeKalb County school district mandates a "student-centered curriculum" that "uses collaborative rather than bureaucratic instructional modes" and "sensitizes people to racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity."

Although alarming statistics indicate that methods and reading materials that emphasize cooperation and sensitivity do not seem to serve the needs of boys, education schools, such as the one at Chapel Hill, resist adapting to proven methods. They caution on their web page about "stereotypes and reinforcing behaviors or attitudes which may not benefit boys. Just as teachers should avoid 'feminizing' boys by discouraging masculine characteristics, so too should they resist 'choosing books that match stereotyped views of boys' interests and capacities that may perpetuate those stereotypes and deny alternative interests.'"

But what about when boys' interests follow those masculine stereotypes of tests of strength, intelligence, and bravery--as research indicates they do? Are boys' academic achievements sacrificed in the name of resisting "stereotypes"? A stroll down any college campus today suggests that, indeed, whatever effect new reading materials and curricula have, they are not luring boys to higher education.

Mary Grabar teaches English at Emory.