Book Review: Richard Reeves' "Of Boys and Men"
How can we help struggling boys and young men do better in school and the labor market?
Mass education is a relatively recent phenomenon. For the vast majority of recorded history, relatively few people received formal education, and those who did were likely to be male.
The United States was a leader in the High School Movement, which arrived here in the early twentieth century, but education operates with a lag, and as recently as the 1960s, most people hadn’t finished high school. In this initial phase of educational expansion, it continued to be a mostly male pursuit. But over the past few generations educational attainment has risen steadily, with the increase concentrated among women and girls clearly doing much better than boys in school.
Richard Reeves’ new book “Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It” is largely devoted to analyzing this educational gap and related issues.
And I realized reading the book that I’d been underestimating the extent of the gap. I’d assumed that boys and girls were similarly represented among high academic achievers, but that the median girl tends to finish college while the median boy does not, at least in part because men have superior access to non-college jobs that pay premium wages. That probably does happen, but Reeves shows that girls really are just doing way better — they earn a much larger share of As, are massively overrepresented among valedictorians, and dominate state university flagship campuses.
This, of course, is not a brand new observation; it received a trolly antifeminist treatment by Christina Hoff Sommers in “The War Against Boys” and a celebratory feminist treatment by Hanna Rosin in “The End of Men.”
Reeves’ approach is more earnest and attentive to issues of social class. Boys in general have some struggles, but the children of educated parents all seem to do well — it’s specifically the male offspring of less educated parents who are badly struggling. The Sopranos are obviously not a typical American family, but they offer us a recognizable pattern: Meadow makes her parents proud and far exceeds her mother’s educational attainment, while A.J. flounders in school and also finds it difficult to follow in his father and grandfather’s occupational footsteps in a changing world.
Why does this matter?
Throughout the book, Reeves disclaims interest in culture warrior-ing and trolling. He says there is no problem with programs designed to help women enter male-dominated STEM fields and condemns conservatives for reacting to every negative social trend with a sweeping determination to reverse 50 years of cultural change.
But an important question for an earnest treatment is why it matters that the people who are struggling are mostly boys. If people are struggling, that’s bad, and we should try to help them. For example, I’m a big believer in the idea that schools should teach early reading with a strict phonics program because I think that would do a lot to help the kids who are currently in the bottom third of the reading ability distribution. Thanks to Reeves, I now know those kids are mostly boys, which means introducing more rigorous reading instruction would help solve the “boy problem.” By the same token, the tail risks involved in lead-related cognitive impairment are worse for boys than for girls (tail risks in general are worse for boys, who are more likely to get killed or end up in prison), so lead abatement programs would help solve the boy problem. But these aren’t “boy solutions” — they’re just solutions. If everyone started listening to me and adopted smart, surveillance-oriented crime prevention rather than relying on post hoc incarceration, we’d greatly improve outcomes for young men, who dominate as both perpetrators and victims of crime. But again, this is a general social problem.
Reeves is focused on “boy solutions,” but even here it’s often a little unclear how much sex really matters.
One of his ideas is more frequent “redshirting,” or delaying the start of kindergarten, for boys.
School enrollment relies on a somewhat arbitrary cutoff to define classes, and in any given kindergarten class, the kids with November birthdays are way older than the kids with August birthdays. Some families hold back a young-for-his-cohort kid so he can start school at an older age with a more mature mindset. The families who avail themselves of this option are primarily high-SES, and the kids are primarily boys, who tend to be slower-developing on a number of dimensions of school readiness. Reeves cites data that says while this is helpful, it’s actually more helpful to low-SES kids, so he argues that we should extend this practice down the socioeconomic ladder. I’m sure there are counterarguments, but I found this pretty convincing.
Still, in practice, the policy proposal is:
Create universal pre-K3 and pre-K4.
Assess pre-K students for kindergarten readiness and have those who aren’t ready repeat pre-K4 so they don’t need to repeat a grade much later in school.
The people who end up repeating pre-K will mostly be boys.
I have no problem with this idea, but it’s the fiscal costs associated with (1) that are the big hurdle. And it’s also not, at the end of the day, actually a sex-specific program recommendation. Reeves even says at one point, “that’s one reason to believe that girls would only be helped by this shift — having more mature boys in classrooms would likely improve the learning environment.” That seems plausible to me. But it underscores that what we’re really talking about here is a generalized improvement in the school system.
The same is true of Reeves’ advocacy for more emphasis on career and technical education (CTE) or what was formerly called vocational schooling. My sense is that almost everyone agrees that this is a good idea (here’s Joe Biden talking about it) and that a majority of the beneficiaries would be boys. But nobody is saying girls should be excluded from CTE classes. Good CTE ideas are good CTE ideas!
Of hooks and frames
I’ve written books myself and I’m obviously aware that “there’s a huge national crisis of boys and young men” is a better hook for a book than “here are some earnest ideas for improving K-12 education policy.”
Indeed, some have said that “One Billion Americans” was nothing more than a provocative framing for a bunch of boring ideas about housing, welfare state design, and transportation policy. On some level, the project was just “invoke conservative values about patriotism and great power politics to get them interested in family policy and immigration, while trying to show to liberals that there are gains to be made by embracing patriotism.” But Reeves really does have a big, potentially impactful policy idea that only really makes sense if you think of these problems as being boy problems per se: he wants to recruit more male teachers, especially in the younger grades and especially in the English and language arts classes where men are most rare.
He makes the point that teaching has actually become more dominated by women over the past two generations, even as women’s opportunities for non-teaching careers have expanded. You can see why this happened (the huge explosion in the number of college-educated women available to teach swamped the expansion of non-teaching options), but I think it’s probably not what people in the 1970s thought would happen when they were pushing for gender equality in the workplace.
Reeves cites good evidence that boys, specifically, do better when they have male teachers and that this is especially true in English where boys struggle most. The biggest difference seems to occur when Black boys have Black male teachers, but it makes a difference across the board. It’s not 100 percent clear why male teachers matter to male students, but it seems like relevant factors include role modeling, latent discrimination, and differential ability to make things seem interesting to specific audiences. I know the boys at my son’s school seem disproportionately enthusiastic about the handful of male teachers they have, and I like that he’s in a couple of extracurriculars (a soccer team and some Muay Thai classes) that feature male teachers.
Reeves also assures us that girls don’t do worse when they have male teachers, which I chalk up to the fact that at the current margin, nobody ends up lacking exposure to female teachers in the K-12 system.
What I think makes this the most important suggestion in the book is that it’s an idea we should take seriously if and only if we take the idea of a boy crisis seriously. The idea that school-aged boys should be deliberately exposed to a larger number and broader range of male role models and authority figures seems compelling, but also requires violating a number of contemporary social norms.
Taking the conclusion seriously
David Brooks wrote a column hailing Reeves’ book but not actually mentioning the teacher-recruitment proposal or acknowledging that the redshirting idea is built on a foundation of massive preschool expansion. That kind of response worries me because I think center-right figures tend to fall into a trap of believing there is some kind of Discourse Magic whereby if we all just furrow our brows and agree that this social trend is bad, we can solve it. But significantly increasing male representation in teaching seems like a very logistically difficult undertaking.
Reeves invokes the precedent of deliberate cultivation of female entry into STEM fields as an example of how this is workable.
And it probably is workable, but I do think there’s a significant difference in that science and engineering jobs are relatively high-paid and high-status relative to K-12 teaching. So while “women in STEM” initiatives have a significant social justice component to them, they also to an extent reflect the fact that women (like all people) like money and are motivated to break into well-paid jobs. Are we prepared to offer bonuses to male English teachers to improve educational outcomes for boys? That seems far-fetched. But maybe private donors would fund scholarships for men interested in teaching? Or finance special programs to help mid-career men get certified to work as teachers and make a career change?
I almost wish there was a whole book about the decline of male teachers, the challenges faced by male teachers as a small and shrinking minority, and the policy options that exist for reversing this trend. The idea that we should care more about boys is such a culture war minefield, but there are a lot of very mundane complexities to teacher recruiting, retention, compensation, and certification that make it hard to know exactly what to recommend without a detailed study.
But closer to the culture war front, I wonder if there isn’t room for just a little more provision of information to America’s older boys and younger men. Reeves writes about the futility of turn-back-the-clock conservatism and the need to give young men viable, up-to-date models of non-toxic masculinity. But when he and others write about listlessness and lack of focus and ambition among young men, I sort of want to clarify that even though a lot has changed over the past 50 years, there’s actually a lot that hasn’t changed. Married men are healthier, live longer regardless of health status, and have more sex at all ages. I think those are outcomes most people want. And women continue to prefer better-educated and higher-earning partners.
So if you want to have a good life according to really banal criteria, it’s a good idea to get your shit together and either finish college or learn a trade and try to keep your video game playing and pot smoking to a level that’s commensurate with getting some promotions at work. You should probably also not be a huge misogynist and consider learning to cook and take care of a child to a degree your grandfather didn’t, but old-fashioned stuff is still incredibly applicable. These are not exactly dark hidden truths, but I do feel like they tend to be spoken mostly by creepy pickup artists or weirdos like Jordan Peterson, and maybe normal people would benefit from hearing them from a more normal source.
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