I have been examining the consequences of women vastly outnumbering men among the undergraduate population. Now, we need to consider the causes of this phenomenon. Amazingly, it has received little attention among education theorists. An exception is a 2007 book by Leonard Sax entitled Boys adrift: The five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men. Sax holds both an M.D. and a Ph.D. in psychology. This book follows up his earlier book Why gender matters: What parents and teachers need to know about the emerging science of sex differences.
Sax’s work reminds us that the lack of men in college results from an earlier trend of boys losing interest in school and dropping out. Colleges and universities will not be able to solve this problem by themselves because as early as kindergarten boys learn that school is not meant for them. Let me summarize briefly the five factors identified by Sax. Some of these are more speculative than others, but all are worth considering and researching more thoroughly in the future.
1. K-12 education has changed in ways that are detrimental to boys. The negative attitude of boys toward school begins in kindergarten, which is now what first grade used to be. Kindergarten used to allow lots of play, exploration of nature, and use of imagination. Now it is focused heavily on reading and writing, and the brains of 5-year-old boys have not developed to the point that they can handle such linguistic work. Their brains are about two years behind the girls, and yet no one would think of expecting 3-year-old girls to learn to read and write. Boys also suffer from female teachers who do not understand the active, energetic natures of boy, and educators have also removed competition from the schools, which can motivate boys to strive to achieve.
My 5-year-old boy just started kindergarten, and since he is highly energetic we were afraid of how he would respond to it. During the second week, he decided that he was not going to school any more because it is just “sitting, sitting, sitting, reading, reading, reading.” His class has 13 boys and 4 girls, and the teacher told us this is the most difficult class she has ever had. Fortunately Benjamin has had the benefit of preschool, but many of the boys have never been in an organized educational setting, and they don’t have a clue how to sit still on a rug during story time or how to stay in line as they go down the hallway to the cafeteria.
2. Video games encourage boys to disengage from the real world. In the future I plan to examine the issue of the effect of video games on learning more fully, but at this point I sympathize with Sax’s concern. In college, we see male students spend hours a day playing video games. They deprive themselves of sleep, and they rob themselves of productive time to complete assignments that would help them learn. And the passive entertainment aspect of video games does little to develop critical thinking and writing skills, which are crucial for success in life.
3. Too many boys are prescribed stimulant medications for ADHD. Sax draws on his own expertise in evaluating children for ADHD, and he argues that teachers often recommend medication for boys because they don’t know how to deal with their natural energy. These medications sap motivation and energy from boys.
4. Endocrine disruptors in the environment such as phthalates affect males more than females. These substances cause lower testosterone levels in young men and cause other difficulties that can interfere with the motivation of male students.
5. Boys lack positive male role models. Absent or uninvolved fathers rob boys of examples that they can imitate. The lack of male teachers also deprives them of positive models.
Sax’s book is provocative, and if his theories are true, then every K-12 teacher, as well as parents, should be aware of them. Unfortunately, I have asked a number of teachers if they were familiar with Sax’s theories, and I have yet to find one who was. These trends are deeply ingrained in our society, school systems, and environment, and it does not appear that they can be changed any time soon. To his credit, Sax is doing his part by founding the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, but I am skeptical that many positive changes will occur in the future.
Sax, L. (2005). Why gender matters: What parents and teachers need to know about the emerging science of sex differences. New York: Doubleday.
Sax, L. (2007). Boys adrift: The five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men. New York: Basic Books.