A Reflection by Mervin Alexander – Retired Teacher/Education Officer
For sometime now we have been hearing this statement especially after an examination, whether it be Grade Six National Assessment or CXC. Listening to a Caribbean newscast I also heard the same statement from a professor in Jamaica lamenting that fact especially in Mathematics and English Language. The entire debate on boys’ underachievement is viewed in relation to the achievement of girls making it look like a question of rivalry between boys and girls. Among the many questions we should be asking ourselves are:
- Do school and schooling processes question or reinforce the existing societal norms of masculine and feminine behaviours, images and practices?
- How do these various factors, socio-economic backgrounds, socialisation, expected gender roles and schooling processes act on and interact with each other and get manifested in boys’ underachievement?
- Does the trend of boys’ underachievement mean a situation of gender privilege for girls?
It is generally accepted that a child’s achievement at school will be determined by factors both inside and outside the school environment. The big question for all and the Ministry of Education is what can be done inside the education system to improve the attendance and performance of boys. As the famous poem states “Children Live what they learn”.
The definition of masculinity itself has proved problematic for academics tackling this issue, and has been caught between dominant, popular perceptions of masculinity within societies on the one hand and a reality of multiple masculinities on the other. Davis (2002) tackles the plurality of masculinity that often arises by simply putting forward “the social and culturally constructed meanings or definitions attributed to being male” as a working definition and, although he also argues that masculinity should be considered in multiple forms, he maintains that the “traditional” or “conservative” perspective of masculinity usually dominates the discourse. In addressing the developing literature on masculinities, West (1999) looks at the portrayal of masculinity in the media using clichés that depict masculinity as natural and innate, and he suggests that there has been slow progress in the academic study of the subject that would more clearly highlight the term’s multiplicity. The public debate, he further argues, dominates the academic one, a consequence of the issues around boys’ underachievement being linked to feminism, and any questioning of boys’ perceived difficulties being linked with a “reaction against feminism”. Addressing “common themes of masculinity”, West’s study unpacks “traditional” masculinity as being based on three dicta – perform, protect, provide – that incorporate the idea of proving and testing (proving to/ testing by other men, women, themselves) that “they are not female”.
I am no expert, but in my humble opinion, it is very difficult for boys these days and our society has a lot to do with what is happening with boys today. Let us look at a few scenarios.
- Boys cannot show emotions. If a boy is hurting, he cannot cry because ‘men don’t cry’. That is seen as a sign of weakness, so naturally from a very tender age he is forced to hold back emotions and play macho.
- There are many avenues for girls/women to express themselves and very little for the boys/men when they can boast as exclusively male:
(i)Carnival – there is the Princess Show, Miss Teen Pageant, Miss Dominica, and Mothers’ Queen Show. The Calypso Show was at one time all male and the winner was called the ‘King’. Women has entered so it is now called ‘Monarch’. The junior Calypso is the same thing.
(ii)Independence – There is Miss Ti-Matador, Miss Wob Dwiyette, Madam Wob – where are our males? The other activities like the traditional dances, short stories, etc are for all.
(iii)At one time in the Catholic Church, altar servers were all males, females are now there also.
(iv)Sports – Traditionally growing up certain sporting activities were designated as male sports and female sports. While at school, especially in Primary schools, we all play the various sports, however when it came to a team to represent the school, Cricket was boys, Rounders was girls. Volleyball was unisex. In Secondary schools Basketball, Football, Cricket – boys; Netball – girls. Even on a national level. Now the girls/women have infiltrated all sports that were traditionally males.
(v) Growing up, the Scouts and Cubs regiment was all males while there was the Girl Guides and Brownies for the girls. The girls are now into the scouts.
What is left for boys to shine as ‘male’ since there are females in everything that were traditionally male, while the traditional female groups and activities remain exclusively female.
- What about Male Models/Mentors?
The absence of male role models is a factor that comes up regularly within the literature on boys’ underachievement, and it assumes the stance that boys’ needs within both school and the broader society are different from those of girls. In the Caribbean context, where the number of women-dominated and single-parent households has been on the rise, the literature reviewed presents strong concerns about the lack of male presence within the home as well as the school. Hunte (2002), in the context of Guyana, argues that boys will seek out negative macho role models to fill the gaps at home or school, and that the resultant anti-schooling attitudes will leave an emotional deficit that inhibits their progress. Figueroa (2000) takes this further and suggests that the absence of discipline meted out to boys in Jamaica by women – who believe this to be the preserve of a father or other male figure – disadvantages boys by permitting their exploration of negative masculine identity to be played out unchecked. West (2002) analyses the problem of an imbalance of male and female teachers, which potentially disadvantages boys by giving messages that ‘only women teach’ and ‘only women read’. His paper further outlines studies that have been conducted in Australia showing that boys value male teachers as role models to get them through the difficulties of the classroom. West quotes a paper by Bress (2000), who argues that males and females have a different language – ‘genderlects’. This theory arguably takes the issue of role models out of purely socialisation discourses and into the more contentious area of gendered heredity. One of the few findings that addressed the issue of boys’ educational underachievement and under-participation in Lesotho also stressed the lack of male teachers in the educational system.
During my stint as a teacher in Primary Schools, in one school I was the only male among five females; at another there were three of us male and the principal in comparison thirty-four females. Whist we were few in numbers, we made our presence felt in all aspects of the school life and the boys did very well. When others, especially adults would make negative comments about them, we did not hesitate to support them. I recall one incident when my ‘All-boys’ choir at the Goodwill Primary School, which was very strong and big, sang at one of the Ministry of Education Primary Schools’ Music Festival, people were in awe at how well they sang and one lady made a comment that they ‘singing like girls’. Of course, I responded to her and told her how wrong she was, and proceeded to explain to her some fundamentals of the singing voice. This is a statement you would never hear in a metropolitan country since they are very exposed to ‘ALL MALE’ choirs. Today I see some of my former male students whom I taught in primary schools who are lawyers, accountants, managers, whose pay far exceeded mine even as an Education Officer.
I recall as an Education Officer, visiting the Eastern District where there was only one male Principal in the Primary Schools of that district – at the castle Bruce Primary School – and guess what – he acted for nine years, retiring as an acting Principal while I know of certain females who got their appointment within two years. Of course, he had a Bachelors in Education and Administration. Is that encouraging to our male teachers? Now that he has retired the statement is ‘he was a good principal’. What hypocrisy!
What example are the grown men, fathers, uncles, big brothers to these boys today? What are they seeing? Look around, men are absent in many essential activities in our society today. Call a PTA meeting, the mothers are present, very few fathers are present. Look in our Churches, very few men are present, where are they? We all know the answer. Is that something positive for our boys? You visit the barber shop and the conversation is nothing edifying. The talk is either about their exploitation of women and girls, ganga smoking, alcohol drinking and of course some very indecent language. I once had to say to the guys in a shop there are children present and of course the response to me was, “these are things they are hearing every day; all you too hypocrite”.
Look at how many of our men and young men dress, especially how they wear their pants, what are we telling our boys?
We as grown men, and women too need to do more to help our boys. There are too many negatives around them. I heard a female radio announcer made the comment that she has three girls who will one day be looking for husbands and she wonder what will become of them. We have to do something to help them to see more value in the male species other than drinking rum, smoking, fighting, sitting by the roadside, talking about the exploitation of women and the like. No amount of teaching with technology is going to change them. Trust me they know of the technology already and can handle it better than us grown-ups. Our boys need good examples, good vibes. Let’s try to seek solution to the problem rather that rub it their faces all the time that the girls are doing better than them. Something needs to be done and quick!