BOYS LEFT OUT
“There is no doubt in my mind that male alienation from the school system does contribute to all of the social problems that we have come across. To put it another way, if they were educated, I think that the negative trends that we have been emphasizing – violence, irresponsible sexual behaviour and so on – would be much less.”
The Millennium Development Goal of gender parity in primary and secondary education is equated with girls’ education. Gender disparity in parts of South America and the Caribbean puts boys at a disadvantage. Why should world leaders be concerned about boys’ enrolment and attendance?
Barry Chevannes: In the first place, we live in a world – what happens in Jamaica is just a symptom of the growing problems in many parts of the world – where we’re seeing an increase in social deviance among young males in particular. We’re talking about very high rates of criminal violence and homicide. The homicide rate in several countries of the Caribbean exceeds 20 per 100,000. There are also other kinds of disparities, in education, for one, where there is what I call ‘under participation’ – some people say it’s ‘under performance’, but I say it’s really ‘under participation’ – of males. This also happens in many of the so-called ‘First World’ countries, where you find this kind of disparity taking place. So males do not want to be educated; they are turning to other things, other forms of deviance. And that’s the point. It is of great concern to the rest of society that there are such social disorders, and the root of it lies in males. So that’s one reason why leaders should be concerned about this.
The other side is that at every level of the society males have power. It’s almost like the way masculinity is defined, by power. You see it in the churches, where females are the mainstay of the churches, but they themselves will elect the males to be leaders. You see it in communities of the poor, where leadership is reposited in males. It’s not that the males simply take over leadership. Sometimes leadership is thrust on them. So, it must be of concern that men in leadership positions do not have the civilizing qualities, if you will, that education – a good education – is supposed to bring. So this is why I think we must be concerned about the attendance and participation of boys in school. Attending is one thing, but also being active and participating in school is another.
How did you get interested in the effects of gender disparity on education?
BC: I was invited to run a survey on male attitudes to contraceptive behavior. This arose from the fact that in Jamaica, the National Family Planning Board found that the reason given by women for why they are not using contraceptives is their husbands and their partners don’t want it. So what is men’s attitude? I piggy-backed on that and asked some more general questions to try and uncover men’s attitudes to sexuality. Then I was invited by UNICEF to look at the problem of our males, because the trend in the rest of the world is that societies are not educating girls. But in our part of the world, it’s the boys. I invited a colleague to team with me and we carried out studies. One thing led to another and to another, and that is how I got involved in the gender disparity issue.
Frequently the focus of Jamaica is boys’ lower school achievement. You’ve said that the dropout rate for boys is the problem and that when boys are in school their achievement is no worse than girls and, in fact, may be better.
BC: This is why I say that we must be more precise in defining what we mean. We usually say, ‘Girls are outperforming boys’. Well, there is not a great deal of evidence for that. Yes, there are many cases of girls outperforming boys, but generally speaking, if boys are in school, are motivated, work hard and so forth, they do excel and achieve just as well as girls. So the problem for me is their under-participation. I once had cause to look at the Caribbean Examination Council results – these are the end-of-high-school examinations, which students must sit after five years in high school – and there again, you find that the boys do perform creditably.
Now, what is it that governs their under-participation? One is the socialization process which tends to favor girls over boys. How so? Well, girls are generally thought of as being in greater need of protection. Boys, in terms of their ‘maleness’, are socialized to be tough and to withstand pain and suffering and hardship. So when a family has little substance and must divide the little between a boy and a girl, what they do is take everything and put it on the girl and say, “You go to school.” And the boy then stays home and fends for himself. So as a result, you’ll find that there’s a greater dropout rate for boys than for girls and it begins, interestingly enough, from Grade One – as early as that.
When you look at the data, you will see that there are more boys than girls entering the school system. Why? Because, as you know, in any population you will find more males born than females. That’s a fact of nature. With the lowering of the infant mortality rate, more and more boys are able to enter the school system – they are surviving longer. But by Grade Two, you begin to see the numbers shifting, and by Grade Four, you have more girls than boys. And by Grade Six, when they leave primary school, it’s definitely more girls that graduate. And the trend continues all the way through high school. So there is an economic factor.
But there’s a second factor, and that is that the teaching method is a bit outmoded. The way it works, girls, with the kind of socialization that they’ve had at home, tend to be more prepared for the school system. It’s more congenial to them – the way of learning, how teachers teach by rote, by students sitting quiet, listening to the teacher and repeating after the teacher, and being attentive. Boys do not learn that way. They learn by doing, by experimenting, by being rambunctious, whereas girls are socialized to be still, to be quiet, to listen, to be very obedient, very attentive. So what I’m saying, then, is that as a result of the way boys are socialized, plus the way that the school system still works – working especially against boys, not encouraging them in their participation in school, not making school exciting for them, and so on – they come out feeling that school is girl stuff.
Gender inequality and gender roles are often cited as causes of boys dropping out of school in the Caribbean. Could you explain?
BC: Yes, I would add that the boys suffer far more abuse than we tend to think. When I say, ‘child abuse’, I think I don’t have to explain what that is. They suffer this in the home, and the school, but in the home particularly. Again, out of the belief that the boys must be tough. They literally brutalize boys. So, I am saying that chances are that you leave the boy to fend for himself, then those gender roles are clearly shaping the way that we attend to the needs of our children.
How would you account for the fact that pervasive gender inequality and expectations are causes for girls to be kept out of school in most parts of the developing world, but instead it actually leads to the marginalization of boys in Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean?
BC: This is a complex question. The dominant ethnic group in the Caribbean is African, descendants of the African people who were enslaved in a forced migration. One of the major differences is that in the rest of the developing world, the patriarchy is expressed in systems of kinship and lineage that are very strong and pervasive. They govern the shape of the family. You don’t just get up and get married; the whole lineage is involved.
In the Caribbean, because of those historical circumstances I refer to, what has emerged is a breaking of the hold that the lineage had on our family formation. You could say that in that respect the African-Caribbean has been post-modern long before it became fashionable in the West – that you marry and consort at will. You don’t have to ask anybody’s permission to establish a conjugal bond. Well, of course, the other side of that is that you can break it at will as well. In all the rest of the developing world, you have to go through processes, the lineage gets involved, the dowry has to be repaid and all those sorts of things, right?
Now, under our conditions, women did not have the kinds of constraints that they have had in the rest of the world. For one, their numbers were in the beginning smaller than males, so they in fact could dictate. But quite apart from that, they came from Africa, also with traditions of certain kinds of autonomy that they were able to preserve right here. Women were financially autonomous of men, because of the trading they did in the markets, and so forth. They could have their own money. So, the culture of the Caribbean – the African Caribbean – is one in which the patriarchy has never been so strong as to completely stifle the development of women. I’m not saying that it didn't and doesn’t exist. But it is not as strong, and as a result, therefore, people expected of their women – of their girl children – achievement, high achievement; and they never discriminated against them in terms of going to school, from the time of the Post-Emancipation Period when the government of the day made provisions for the descendants of the Africans to be educated, at least at the primary level. There was never any discrimination about girls being a part of the system of education. So, it’s a very interesting question. Now when you pile on top of that the dropouts that we’ve been getting among the male population, then you can see why the Caribbean is the kind of society in which the reverse to what is happening in the rest of the world is taking place – where it is boys who are being marginalized and not girls.
Violence, crime, incarceration, dysfunctional family relations and general antisocial behavior among males have been attributed, among other things, to boys being alienated from school. Could you comment?
BC: We should not make the schools responsible for everything. That would be wrong. The fact is that you have educated people who also are criminals. There is such a thing as white collar crime, and they are also prone to wife-beating and other kinds of violence. But having said that, there is no doubt in my mind that male alienation from the school system does contribute to all of the social problems that we have come across. To put it another way, if they were educated, I think that the negative trends that we have been emphasizing – violence and irresponsible sexual behavior and so on – would be much less.
What do I mean by ‘education’ here? I’m not just dealing with the ‘Three Rs’ and those technical skills that they say we all need to function in the 21st century. No, I think that the function of education is also to make people human beings. I don’t think that one is born a ready-made human being. You get socialized. That’s what education is about. So I see the things we call ‘extra-curricular activity’ as very much a part of the education system. The activities in drama, in sports, in speech, in song and dance, in book clubs are very much a part of what an education is about. It is not simply studying for an exam and getting good marks and all that. It is far more above that. And it’s missing from our system – or at least the emphasis on it is missing. And I think that if we put that emphasis back into the educational system, we not only will attract and keep many of the boys in the school, but they will turn out much more refined and less alienated and see the world as a stage where they can achieve and perform.
What changes do you suggest schools make to be more welcoming?
BC: One is the methodology, how to teach. They would have to get rid of the rote learning. There are certain things you have to learn by rote. You have to learn your two one’s two, two two’s four, two three’s six. And you have to learn how many continents there are, and what is the name of the capital of which country – those kinds of things – that is rote. But that is only a minimal, a 10 per cent of what a primary schoolchild should, in fact, learn. You learn better when you experiment and arrive at the knowledge by yourself. That’s the kind of thing that I think boys would respond to a great deal more than what is happening now.
I also think – I’m not an educator – but I have always questioned the wisdom of coeducational high schools. I hear the psychologists say that boys develop more slowly than girls. If it is a fact, and if there is a disparity in the level of development of the genders at a given age, then shouldn't they be treated differently? So I would be for segregated agendas, if not schools, at certain ages in their development. Bring them back together when the maturity of the male catches up with the female.
What is the danger of not rectifying male gender disparity in education?
BC: Yesterday, the Sunday paper carried a thing – ‘Guns and Books’. A very odd kind of association of words, but what they’re pointing to is that many boys are found carrying guns to school. Now, the problem of the violence is not something that is outside the walls of the school. The same children that live outside are attending school. The challenge is, how do you imbue them with the values that will have them play a different role in the society and in the communities which they come from, a role that is more uplifting and away from the social deviance? That is a challenge, you know. And there are efforts within current Jamaica to turn things around, with varied success. There’s ‘Change from Within’, there is ‘Pathways to Peace’ – many others. There’s an attempt to address this problem of the violence and the disorder – now, because not attending to it now means that you still have to attend to it later and the cost is greater. So that’s the danger, if we were to be complacent. But thankfully, the society is not complacent about it. It’s just that the resources are lacking.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
BC: I would just like to say that in all these instances of gender parity, violence and all these things, I think we have to work together – men and women. I think we’re long past the day now when the issues of masculinity are a male issue. What I also want to say is this, that there is a crisis I think all over the world – let me qualify that and say all over the Western world, including us who are forced to be a part of the West. There is a crisis centered on males. In the United States, I believe, the incarceration rate for African-American males is very high. I think it’s also high among whites as well. There are the problems of education, declining standards of behavior and all these things. The crisis may be more mature in some countries, such as ours, but that there is one is impatient of debate, and it had better be addressed now.