Boys Academic Performance: Discipline, Violence and the Gender issue.
In an article I wrote on this blog a while ago in French, 'Les garçons et l'école: que sont nos hommes devenus', I tackled the question of the poor academic performance of boys, compared to girls, in developed countries. I defended the idea that this phenomenon might be linked to an increase in behavioural problems and disorders more endemic or prevalent in boys, among them; Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
I tried to explain boys behavioural disorders from a sociological perspective in which the classical types of authority, the natural and physical, the divine and religious, and the authority derived from personified knowledge, the teacher, have been replaced now by what French philosopher Alain Renaut calls the contractual authority. This latter form might better suit girls, putting boys at some level of disadvantage. I defended the idea that the absence, from today's pedagogy, of the above mentioned classical forms of authority which relied on hierarchy and resorted to a certain degree of violence, have actually created an internal conflict in boys who are invited to play the game of contractual authority while they clearly feel that this game does not acquaint them with what they perceive as the social division of genders that bestows upon them, more than their female counterparts, the authority, leadership and violence existing in the social space devoted to men.
And while most sociologists have a constructivist approach to the question of gender and violence, we cannot dismiss the biological grounds for social perceptions and social divisions of roles based on gender, as the experiments on Monkeys, cited in the above mentioned post, demonstrate. Recognising that there exists a biological ground to the question of violence and gender does not however exclude some form of social constructivism; the two factors, biological and social, collaborate during development in a transactional manner to define the final outcome of a certain behavioural charcteristic.
The question put here therefore is that some social transformations, like the democratisation of previous forms of authority at school relying on violence into a contractual form of authority, are disadvantaging boys for two obvious reasons; one is that the social perception and roles of adult males, despite the egalitarian feminist struggle, didn't change much, the other is that violence seems to be rooted in social structures - like hierarchy in the workplace - devoted classically to males. Women who occupy male territory are not transforming these structures but rather adopting their culture and conforming to it including the culture of violence in hierarchical relations at work.
In this new social scheme, girls seem to be adapted to both forms of authority, contractual and classical, showing their willingness to negociate when necessary and to fight their way agressively when required, while boys seem to be stuck in one scheme. Because women, while pursuing their social struggle toward more equality with men, have not only occupied part of the social space reserved to men but also kept their own, they are becoming versatile, rapidly adapting to different social situations. Men, on the other hand, had no demands like the feminists; they didn't ask forcefully to occupy functions and fill social roles traditionally devoted to women, they have, in their majority, stuck to their traditional role, therefore becoming unable to show the same versatility as women.
One issue not adressed often by the feminist movement is their willingness to let men invade their social space and take on their classical social roles. Sociologists believe that gender equality will be attained when men will become able to cross lines massively into what is perceived as women's territory. Indeed, gender inequality is stratified, touching many social functions, and is also reciprocal and bidirectional. The fact that women's movement was not matched by another movement in the other direction from men might explain the social malaise of boys and their academic and behavioural problems in school. Caught in the internal contradictions of their gender, having to comply to a non violent form of hierarchy at school but to bear the burden of violence in the workplace and in society in general, boys are expressing the malaise of a transitional generation.
Our responsibility as adults is to pursue these social transformations in a more egalitarian way. To expect from women to bring their contractual authority skills, learned and integrated at school, to the workplace, instead of adopting the old cutlure of hierarchical violence merely imitating men. And to expect from men the reverse movement toward conquering teritories traditionally reserved to women. Because once women would have conquered all the social strata defining the male gender, without a reverse movement, we will probably assist to a collapse of the social stratification of gender identity. But with a reverse movement from men and a more active contribution of women, what may come out is not a gender collapse but rather the ubiquity of both genders with less social stratification and real equality. Meanwhile, like in every social transformation, there is no going back. And this transitional malaise of generations must be alleviated by creating more awareness on the violence in the workplace and in the world in general and by actively decreasing this violence. May be then, men, relieved from the burden of violence, will try to conquer other territories and start the reverse movement, the march toward their equality with women.
After all, what counts most is not our gender but what unites us, men and women, our humanity and our capacity to inhabit this different and distant other...
Documents and articles that inspired this post:
Randall Collins; Janet Saltzman Chafetz; Rae Lesser Blumberg; Scott Coltrane; Jonathan H.Turner. 1993. Toward an Integrated Theory of Gender Stratification. Sociological Perspectives, Vol. 36, No. 3., pp. 185-216.
Michael S. Kimmel, Jeff R. Hern and Robert W. Connell. 2004. Handbook of Studies on Men and Masculinities, Sage Publications.