History, Topic of the Past

How Positive Social Change for Boys Benefits Everyone

social change for boys

“Believing there was a unique boyish essence that must be catered to, educators offered same-sex practical education with male role models. They did little to address the issues of poverty and discrimination these young men encountered. And they failed horribly when it came to getting young males to question some of the tenets of masculinity that contributed to the very problems that reformers were trying to eradicate.”

–Julia Grant

Julia Grant has been a professor at James Madison College since receiving her Ph.D from Boston University, where she served as director of the Women’s Studies Program. She has also received a number of prestigious grants, fellowships and awards, including a Spencer Fellowship, a Lily Teaching Fellowship, and the Teacher-Scholar Award.

Her work in women’s studies resulted in a great deal of historical research of childhood gender roles and how society has historically defined masculinity. This research led to many of her published works, including her 2001 book “When Science Encounters the Child: Perspectives on Education, Child Welfare, and Parenting“. Her latest work, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, “The Boy Problem: Educating Boys in Urban America, 1870-1970” provides a detailed historical overview of social change for boys during that time period.

The Role of Economics in Social Change for Boys

The research of the book demonstrates a clear link between economic class and both the quality and type of education boys received. In many ways, social change for boys has not kept pace with that of the expansion in social roles of women. For example, the societal definition of masculinity has included the ability to perform manual labor. That definition resulted in the establishment of “educational” programs that focused more on the development of those skills than academic skills. This was especially true for poor children, both boys and girls alike, of poor immigrants. Due to language barriers and poverty that required both parents to labor long hours, many of these children were left largely unsupervised.

Lack of parental supervision often resulted in delinquent behavior, which was addressed through the development of “special” education classes and “reformatories” which were part of the juvenile justice system. Delinquent behavior was defined differently for boys and girls, with the definition for girls having a sexual component. In this regard, girls with a sexual history were considered impossible to reform, and devalued. One of the goals for social change for boys was training which would channel their energies towards productive labor. It was not uncommon for juvenile facilities to utilize the labor of both boys and girls, while maintaining traditional gender roles by assigning outdoor labor to boys and domestic labor to girls.

Progress in Social Change for Boys

Today, social change for boys includes a much less rigid definition of masculinity. While there are still differences in social expectations for boys and girls, gender lines have begun to blur, especially within Western culture. For example, both boys and girls are now often permitted, and even encouraged, to play with both dolls and toy trucks. The range of choices in toys has been accompanied by parental encouragement for all children to both express their emotions and develop their physical strength.

However, despite a greater degree of social equality in education, there are still some important biological differences between boys and girls. An article in the Washington Post points to evidence from the best-selling book, “The Teenage Brain”, written by Frances Jensen, which suggests that boys and girls reach their peak of cognitive development at different ages. For girls, it is between 12 and 13 years old, while for boys it is 15 to 16.

That means that it’s possible that girls may be more ready for complex subjects sooner than boys. For example, rather than placing children in classes according to age and grade, an increase in learning potential would result by introducing more difficult material in accordance with the rate of brain development.

Should Boys and Girls Be Educated Differently?

The question of whether boys and girls should be educated differently, as well as separately, continues to be a topic of debate amongst professional educators. In the 1990’s research published in an article by the National Education Association, boys and girls exhibit very different behaviors in the average classroom. For example, research showed that boys called out answers eight times as often than girls, that teachers valued boys’ responses more than girls’ and encouraged boys to problem-solve independently more often than girls.

Those research results led to a greater awareness of gender inequality in education and to positive changes in education for both genders. Creating positive changes in the educational system is an ongoing process. In an article in Education Weekly, Julia Gray expresses the opinion that current educational initiatives supported by President Obama don’t address important surrounding issues. Just as immigration, assimilation, and economics were factors that negatively affected education for boys in the past, they continue to be factors in slowing positive social change for boys today.

The good news is that books like hers raise society’s awareness of those issues and the importance of finding creative new ways to address them.


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