The Failure Of Boys Means A Failure For All

April 4, 2011

Michel Martin

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Andy Lyons
Matt Howard (center) of the Butler Bulldogs handles the ball against Jamie Skeen (left) and Joey Rodriguez of the Virginia Commonwealth Rams during the National Semifinal game of the 2011 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship at Reliant Stadium on April 2 in Houston.

I'll admit it. I've been caught up in it, too.

By it, I mean the NCAA basketball championships, March Madness, which has, of course, lasted into April. I've been watching every game I can squeeze in — the men and the women.

And if you are any kind of a fan, can you really not be thrilled watching the two underdogs among the men's teams — Butler and VCU — go at it, knowing only one would go on to the championship game?

Can you not feel a pang of regret watching the Stanford women fall to the Texas A&M women, just a few short months after Stanford nipped the UConn team's historic winning streak in the bud, only to have UConn then fall to Notre Dame?

And then, when you've nibbled your last kernel of popcorn and licked the last buffalo wing sauce from your fingertips, how can you not think about the fact that most of the young ladies you just watched are going to graduate from those fine institutions they represent, and too many of those young men are not?

And I'm not even talking about the people on the court. I'm talking about the kids in the stands. As the education writer and blogger Richard Whitmire points out in his provocative work, Why Boys Fail, by every statistical measure boys are falling behind in school.

The average graduating class at a four-year college is 60 percent women, and women are overtaking men at every level of degree — from associate to Ph.D.

This is something that leaders of predominately black educational institutions have been noting and worrying about for years, and one is tempted to say that, as is often the case, nobody noticed or cared until the same phenomenon started affecting white children — except that Whitmire makes the compelling case that nobody has really cared about them either.

Further, Whitmire makes the point that the widening gender gap in educational achievement is a problem for everybody, not because girls are getting ahead of themselves (he is, after all, the father of two daughters), but because a huge swath of the population — boys who will become men — are not getting enough education to meet the demands of the labor market of today, let alone of tomorrow.

He also hints at a subject that is a raging debate in black social circles and media, which is the consequence to social relationships when girls are outpacing boys in every metric that matters to success.

That's a subject too big for today but I'll say this:

Can I just tell you? It would seem that this is a problem worthy of our careful consideration, but too often that is not what we get. What we get too often , it seems to me, is the same kind of cheap polarization that also too often characterizes racial debate in this country — a contest of competitive suffering, about who is worse off, Team Estrogen or Team Testosterone — rather than a conversation about what, if anything, can be done to serve different people equally well.

One of the many revelations that have come my way as a longtime student of public policy (as well as the parent of both a boy and a girl, and the stepparent of two accomplished young women) is how quickly people feel free to choose up sides where gender is concerned, to ignore all other considerations, as if gender is the one true fact and the only true fact. You can see why. It is easier for activists to line up along gender lines, and gender is the first and most obvious thing we learn about a child. And gender identity is perhaps more fluid than ever; we bring all kinds of expectations and understanding to our sense of who we are, what we should do and be because of our gender.

But that doesn't mean we should ignore common sense and the reality of what we need as a country. And what we need is for everyone to succeed. When one group is falling drastically behind, we all fail.

When my twins were born, one of them had trouble keeping down food, and my sister-in-law, who is a public health nurse (as well as a fellow twin mom), called our pediatrician to try to persuade her to consider an approach different from the time-consuming feeding schedule originally envisioned. She explained, you'll never sleep, you'll never make it. With twins she explained, you have to treat the family, not just the patient.

Wise words that our educators and activists might consider, as well. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.