Schools Are the Wrong Shape for Boys
Richard Reeves's redshirting proposal
Last week, I published a piece at Deseret on Ron DeSantis’s stunt flying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. The key piece: “DeSantis didn’t bring the border to the north. He sent people to Martha’s Vineyard without bringing any of the support structures that have been built up at the border.” Our immigration system is broken, and relies on the invisible infrastructure maintained by non-profits and religious groups.
The idea at the heart of Other Feminisms is: The world is the wrong shape for women. Women are asked to find ways to alter ourselves, rather than be accommodated as we are. In a world that treats us as malformed men, we try to find ways to fit better into a male mold.
I often get the spear counterpart question—where is the world the wrong shape for men? Are there places where norms that suit women prevail and men are left to contort themselves to fit?
My first answer is always schools.
A model of school where students sit quietly for nearly the entire day isn’t great for anyone, but it’s much harder for boys than for girls. The tweet above is drawn from Richard Reeves, the author of Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It.
The book is out this week, but while I’m waiting to get to it, Reeves has an article in the Atlantic arguing for an accommodation—redshirt the boys.
Redshirting is the practice of delaying entry into school (sometimes for the sake of making a child more competitive in sports later, because he or she will be proportionately bigger than peers). But Reeves has found a different reason—evening the playing field by keeping boys from being compared to girls their age:
I’ve interviewed dozens of private-school teachers, parents, educational consultants, and admissions officers, largely in the D.C. metro area. I learned that a delayed school entry is now close to the norm for boys who would otherwise be on the young side. One former head of an elite private school who now consults with parents on school choice and admissions told me, “There are effectively two different cutoff dates for school entry: one for boys and one for girls.” […]
Affluent parents and elite schools are tackling the issue by giving boys more time. But in fact it is boys from poorer backgrounds who struggle the most in the classroom, and these boys, who could benefit most from the gift of time, are the ones least likely to receive it.
Reeves is arguing to universalize an approach taken most often by the elites, and start all boys later than girls. (Let’s set aside for a moment that this means an additional year of covering child care for boys.) He sees the benefit for boys as obvious, but he hopes it would produce gains for women, too, since he expects boys who take school at the right pace will grow into better men.
His article walks through a range of neuroscience citations to argue that boys’ brains mature more slowly than girls’ and that they struggle more with impulse control as they navigate the testosterone surge of puberty.
Reeves makes it clear that this is more a question of when boys and girls grow up, than whether they grow into maturity:
By far the biggest sex difference is not in how female and male brains develop, but when. The relationship between chronological age and developmental age is different for girls and boys. From a strictly neuroscientific perspective, the education system is tilted in favor of girls.
His hope is that redshirted boys would be less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, less likely to have disciplinary problems, more likely to treat their peers with respect, and (of course) more likely to pass standardized tests.
When I talked about this article with friends, they asked, “Why not just have single-sex schools?” Reeves addresses the question briefly, saying that his proposal is much less disruptive than establishing new schools—you keep the same schools and just stagger entrance. He also thinks the evidence is stronger for redshirting than for single-gender education.
But what it leaves me wondering is what education would look like if it were tuned to children’s development (both for boys and girls) in the way that Montessori education for small children is intended to be. It’s hard to read over Reeves’s article and conclude boys just need the same school, a little later.
I wonder if what drives the "sit still and be quiet" approach to education is the fact that our society values those kinds of jobs. If that's the case, there's an indirect way in which society favors women. Fertility differences play a big role in why the professional world devalues women, and that's a real thing, but it's also true that when you're pregnant, it is easier/safer to sit quietly and type than to bend over and lift. (that said, with a born baby/toddler, physical work is often easier as long as it's not dangerous. I can do laundry and dishes with my toddler tagging along more easily than I can write a paper with my toddler tagging along. But if I were an electrician or plumber I wouldn't want her to be present.)
"How would you expect the puberty-years of school to be different for both sexes, if school tracked development, instead of being fairly invariant across the years?"
As in, tracked development more holistically, not just checking off average milestones and accommodating an average difference between boys and girls?
Already in our usual system, high school is where the most gifted boys start pulling ahead of the girls in STEM. Mastering an intellectual challenge can channel and benefit from aggression, and between testosterone and girls' socialization to be less-aggressive people-pleasers "good enough at everything" (instead of focusing on what they're best at), girls will be at an unnecessary disadvantage if they haven't already banked talent development during their prepubertal years.
Schooling's job isn't just to educate the whole populace adequately, but to recognize special talent and prepare it. The trend to push calculus down to high school makes sense for that preparation. But it doesn't make sense for *everyone*, since that's not where everyone's talent and interest lies.
Schooling that really tracked children's individual development through high school would be far less homogenous, far more "tracked", and hopefully also more flexible in switching between tracks. Tracking would be skill-specific, not a blanket "is honors student or isn't". There would be more age-mixing, which requires its own caution. (One reason to educate youths by age rather than ability is to limit kids' aggression, whether physical, social, or sexual, to kids more their own size.)
Such a school sounds like heaven to me, with more room to develop both boys' and girls' talent. In particular, girls likely to go on to postgraduate education have more hope of successfully juggling that kind of career with less-delayed family formation. A guy who's done with postgraduate education at 30 is still reproductively "young". A gal is not, and this matters. A girl who wants to be a mathematician, who was capable of calculus at 12, and not taught it till her late teens, suffers more loss than guys who want to be mathematicians. Over a lifespan, guys' later development is balanced out (and then some, I think) by gals who need time for motherhood.
Is this ideal achievable on a mass scale? I'm pessimistic. But I can see little shoots of hope here and there, including in after-school services like Russian School of Mathematics and in how our very ordinary local public elementary has redesigned its accelerated classes.