The percentage of boys going on to college has dropped precipitously over the past 50 years—from 70 percent to 42 percent. That alarming number from the book Boys Adrift maintains that the decline has taken place even while the ratio of boys to girls has remained about the same: 51 percent to 49 percent.
Recently, a growing chorus of voices among education experts has advocated the need to refocus attention on boys’ academic performance as its decline has become too great to ignore. A lengthy but fascinating article in The Atlantic magazine by Christina Hoff Sommers details what she dubs the “war on boys.” As a community, we are seeking answers as to what has caused the drop and how to bring boys back from the brink.
As an educator at an all-boys school, I am often drawn into a debate about the merits of single-sex education. At Saint Stanislaus, we have had an unusual opportunity to witness both single-sex and co-educational settings at play.
Post-Hurricane Katrina, our campus became a real-life lab as we hosted students from our neighboring sister school. Our Lady Academy suffered total devastation of its campus in the storm surge of 2005. We opened our doors wide to welcome them to Saint Stanislaus and for one year, we were “two schools, one spirit.”
It was an instructive experience. The good news was that our boys started to comb their hair and use deodorant regularly, mindful of their status with the girls. As we have always known, women certainly have a civilizing effect on men – and that is important. However, the downsides in the classroom were all too apparent from the outset.
Where once our young men would focus in class on the material, they were distracted and less likely to participate or pay attention to the teacher; where we had a thriving group of school leaders who took the initiative in Student Council and other formal organizations, the girls dominated and boys lost their gumption.
Our faculty quickly noticed that, although the boys were better behaved and smelled nice, they were missing much more critical components of their formation – active participation and willingness to engage in the classroom, strong leadership and involvement in extracurricular activities and the bright-eyed ambition that our boys had been known for.
I was happy to have the girls in my classes because they were smart, interesting and almost always prepared, but I grew frustrated at how reticent even my most talented boys had become. In a private conversation with a student I had previously recognized for his intellect and insight, he confided that he was simply petrified of “looking stupid in front of the girls if I say the wrong thing.” His calculation seemed to follow Mark Twain’s advice that it is “better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”
When the challenging year came to a close, the consensus among both faculties of Saint Stanislaus and Our Lady Academy was that this experiment had been necessary and instructive (and had its own moments of fun), but was not a situation we wanted to continue. The faculty and the kids all learned some important lessons about co-existing happily with our neighbors, but they also poignantly understood, both practically and intellectually, the clear value of giving both adolescent boys and girls the space they need to grow academically and emotionally.