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Edward Morris' New Book Investigates Boys' Underperformance in School

By Mary Venuto

One day while waiting at the dentist’s office sociology associate professor, Edward Morris, picked up a Newsweek magazine that depicted a group of elementary aged boys bleakly staring back at the camera. The headline read “The Boy Crisis: At Every Level of Education They’re Falling Behind. What to Do?” This prompted Morris to write his book, “Learning the Hard Way,” as a way to give a sociologically informed response to this social issue.

“I was interested in how the article framed the educational underperformance of boys: as uniform across all groups of boys…and as a zero-sum game where if girls progress, boys lose out.”

Thus began Morris’ six year study on understanding the educational experience from the point of view of high school students from different backgrounds. One of the key pieces of information he felt was missing from this area of research was the students’ take on the concepts of masculinity and education. Morris started his exploration by conducting ethnographic research at one urban and one rural high school in Ohio for one and a half school years. He sat in classrooms, hung out in halls, interviewed students, teachers, counselors, and administrators. He sifted through historical and contemporary news articles about the schools and their communities. By the end of his fieldwork, Morris had compiled over 1,000 pages of raw data.  

Most academic literature in this area of research had focused on the plight of African American boys within and beyond school, so when Morris uncovered that girls surpassed boys in the predominately White rural school he found that these disparities ran deeper than social class and race. “Learning the Hard Way” delves deeper into the affirmations of masculinity and how, when taken to extremes, it typically hampers boys’ educational progress.

“Gender interacts with place in ways that create similar challenges for boys and masculinity in disadvantaged areas. Boys in both locations felt the need to affirm their masculinity and project the toughness, risk-taking, and bravado associated with manhood.”

In the book, Morris consciously avoids framing boys as helpless victims or as completely liable for their own problems. The point of the book is that the boys were merely exhibiting behaviors consistent with cultural messages about masculinity. The stigma of educationally beneficial behaviors such as hewing to school rules, answering questions in class, asking for extra help on school work, or even breaking down in a fight being effeminate are some of the hidden costs stemming from the emphasis on independence connected to masculinity.

“But when boys (and men) feel powerless, whether it is based on where they live, their family background, or even interpersonal difficulty,” said Morris “they can seek the power of masculinity in detrimental ways. The challenge I think is to make masculinity more open to vulnerability and less wedded to superiority.”

“Learning The Hard Way” is a book not only about the rising gender gap in America’s schools, but also about how breaking down the patriarchal gender norms will benefit both young men and young women. 

Additional Reading: Morris discusses the book on an online blog "Gender & Society" - the article can be found here.