Today, the so-called boy crisis* rears its ugly head once more. Reports in The Times, and of course the Daily Hell which never fails to capitalise on these stories, focus on a new book by one Dr Leonard Sax, long-time advocate of single sex schooling and founder in the USA of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. (NB in the USA public schools means state schools.)

[* By which we mean that educational achievement for white middle class boys appears to be improving at a slightly lower rate than that for white middle class girls, both of which continue to be way ahead of poor children and/or children of colour who are almost always neglected in discussions of the boy crisis.]

Sax’s argument focuses on research suggesting that boys have less good hearing than girls, and respond in slightly different ways to visual stimuli. Thus, he says, boys suffer because teachers think they are not paying attention when the real problem is that they cannot hear what the teacher is saying. Thus, he says, boys suffer because teachers tell them off for drawing a picture of a horrid car crash instead of a nice still life like the one that teacher’s pet Emily drew. Oh, yeah, there’s also a lot of stuff about how boys are biologically less able to sit still or be quiet than their swotty female peers. Therefore, single-sex education is the answer! Apparently.

This article by Sara Mead is comprehensive and refreshing. Mead takes apart the statistics (based on evidence of achievement in the USA over the last few decades) to chart how well boys and girls have done in various subjects and where differences have arisen. Her conclusion is that overall boys have improved, certainly in the elementary years that so interest Sax, but that girls have improved faster in many areas so that they have caught up or pulled ahead of boys. So when you look at actual evidence, the picture that emerges is not of boys doing badly or failing or in crisis – but of boys doing well, and girls doing a bit better in some areas – but still doing slightly worse in others.

Mead goes on to consider the various claims made by some individuals and widely publicised by the media that boys genuinely are in crisis. She criticises not only their exaggeration of the significance of gender differences but also the dearth of evidence to support any of their assertions, never mind their various and often conflicting ideas about how to solve the so-called crisis. She says (among other things, I just picked the quote that summed it up for me):

A number of con­serva­tive authors, think tanks, and journals have published articles arguing that progressive educational pedagogy and misguided feminism are hurting boys. According to these critics, misguided feminists have lavished resources on female students at the expense of males and demonized typical boy behaviors such as rowdy play. At the same time, progressive educational pedagogy is harming boys by replacing strict discipline with permissiveness, teacher-led direct instruction with student-led collaborative learning, and academic content with a focus on developing students’ self-esteem. The boy crisis offers an attractive way for con­serva­tive pundits to get in some knocks against feminism and progressive education and also provides another argument for educational policies—such as stricter discipline, more traditional curriculum, increased testing and competition, and single-sex schooling—that con­serva­tives have long supported…. Few of these commentators have anything new to say—the boy crisis has just given them a new opportunity to promote their old messages.

So with all this in mind, what do we make of Sax?

I found an incisive series of posts by one Mark Liberman on Language Log in which he analyses various claims made (by Sax and others) about natural sex differences. I quote a few below – there’s more, but you will get the picture just from this.

Are men emotional children?

Liberman investigates Sax’s use of a very limited study of a very small number of children to draw sweeping conclusions about how boys’ and girls’ ability to articulate their emotions develops with age.

Among other things, Sax claimed that there is little point asking a 7-yr-old why they feel sad or distressed because they do not have the right brain connections to understand why they feel that way – that as they mature girls brains develop so that they can understand and articulate the reasosns for feeling sad etc whereas boys develop their brains differently so that they are never able to fully connect with their feelings of sadness. Liberman shows that this is utterly unsupported by the research evidence cited by Sax to prove his claim. Indeed, a 3 year old could prove him wrong – and mine frequently does because she (unlike Sax’s standard issue seven year old) has very little difficulty in understanding or articulating why she feels sad or upset!

Neuroscience in the service of sexual stereotypes

This post is primarily about someone else (Louann Brizendine), but is interesting because it discusses what is known about hearing / sex differences.

Quote: “If you pick a man and a women (or a boy and a girl) at random, the chances are about 6 in 10 that the girl’s hearing will be more sensitive — but about 4 in 10 that the boy’s hearing will be more sensitive. Not only that, but the expected value of the sensitivity difference is extremely small… So if boys are really less attentive to their mothers than girls are, the difference is not very likely to be due to differences in hearing sensitivity.”

Of rats and (wo)men

Liberman tracks down another couple of pieces of research that Sax relies upon – and demonstrates that “facts” put forward by Sax about differences in the way that boys see (from which he extrapolates much of his theory e.g. about boys being primarily interested in motion and action while girls are primarily interested in things and people) are just false. They are based on studies done on rats. They do not apply to humans: studies on humans show completely different results, yet Sax did not cite the human studies – only the rat studies.

Leonard Sax on hearing

A further exposé on Lax Sax and his terrible abuse of science – a look at the studies supposedly supporting Sax’s claim for a significant difference in hearing between school age children finds that they do nothing of the kind.

Quote: “My conclusion from all this is that Leonard Sax has no serious interest in the science of sex differences. He’s a politician, making a political argument. For all I know, his political goal — single-sex education — might be a good thing. But he should stop pretending that he’s got science on his side, or else he should start paying some minimal attention to what the science actually says.”

That’s my conclusion too.