Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Masculinity and Schooling

As our political leaders scramble to find solutions to the country’s economic woes we must as a society urge our leaders in education to find ways and means of rescuing our boys who for the most part are sliding into a state of underachievement and underperformance at all levels of the education system. From as early as primary school we see our girls outperforming our boys in all the national examinations, namely the Grade Four Literacy and Numeracy Tests, as well as, the exit examination, the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT). The crisis affecting our boys is not unique to Jamaica. Other islands of the Caribbean are also experiencing similar issues. Developed societies such as the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Australia are also grappling with the plight of boys, underachievement and how to address the problem. Male underachievement is more a socio-political issue than an educational one.  Social and cultural factors have influence and continue to do so the various ways in which masculinity is defined not only in the Jamaican society but societies all over. Masculinity and what it means to be a man does impact on the education of our boys. Many boys view the school experience as feminine. Our boys’ life choices are severely circumscribed by the dominant notions of masculinity competing with “multiple masculinities” in the society. For many boys especially in a homophobic and transphobic Jamaican society they are forced to remove themselves from any association with the feminine or curriculum areas related to same. One glaring example of boys removing themselves from perceived feminine curriculum is the continuous poor performance of our boys in English Language in the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examination.
Boys who speak or attempt to speak Standard English are called derogatory names and ridiculed almost daily by their peers. The dominant notion of masculinity in the wider Jamaican society is one in which to speak Standard English is tantamount of being isolated by one’s peers and the accompanying question marks which undoubtedly will follow surrounding one’s sexual orientation. Not be outdone our schools which mirror the wider society and space in which we occupy also suffer from this. Not surprisingly a significant number of our boys do not readily code switch between the languages, instead they prefer to use and remain with the language of what defines a man to be a man. The school experience for many boys is already traumatic and therefore who can that boy for just fitting in and face the hostile treatment and name calling from his friends. Interestingly, even boys from a background of privilege and from homes where Standard English is spoken are now struggling with the English Language as we continue to see the intersection of class and gender and how this impacts the school experience for our boys. Our boys learn from quite early that having an education is not vital to be successful in life. In fact if we assess success in terms of material possessions in the Jamaican context we will see that an overwhelmingly majority of those men who are successful are those who did not excel at scholastic pursuits.  Many of these “successful” men in our society could be grouped in the greater in the categories of (high) school drop-outs and those who have run a foul with the law. Related to the problem of boys underachievement is the issue of our failing schools. They are those among us who prefer not to use the term failing; however, these schools are just that because they are unable to produce pupils with high levels of literacy and numeracy which is a must if we are going to find creative means out overcoming our economic issues. The problem of failing schools is inextricably linked to poor leadership and management of those schools. Throughout the Caribbean the issue of male underachievement is pervasive. In the Caribbean island of Barbados a similar problem of boy’s underachievement exists. In the Barbados Secondary Schools Entrance Examination (BSSEE) of 2011 of the 26 students who attained 100 per cent, females outnumbered males. Sixteen (16) females scored 100 per cent in this examination compared to ten (10) males. This examination is used to place pupils in high schools in Barbados. In the previous year 2010, females also outperformed males in regard to those students scoring 100 per cent. According to data from the Barbadian Ministry of Education the overall national mean in Mathematics was 58.72 as compared to 60.92 in 2011 and 51.4 in 2010, indicating a 2.19 per cent decrease in 2012 than in 2011. The performance for both males and females decreased slightly in 2012 over last year. For the females, it was 62.12 per cent in 2012 as compared to 65.18 in 2011, a decrease of 3.06 while for males in 2012, the overall performance 55.53 as compared to 56.83 in 2011, and a marginal decline of 1.30 percentage points. What is interesting here is that even in the area of Mathematics where boys traditionally do well, girls are outperforming them. Barbados has adapted a sort of ‘affirmative’ action at the primary level to stem boys underachievement at that level. According to an official in the Barbados Ministry of Education poorly performing boys in the Common Entrance Examination are given the opportunity to attend what is termed the ''most favoured or older secondary schools in Barbados''.
Students who score highest in the examination are often placed in these older and more favoured secondary schools. However, if the high school is offering 120 places, for example, the Education Ministry invariably sends 60 boys and 60 girls, although the girls' scores are much higher than the boys'. The interference of politics in the education system is the genesis of most of the ills affecting the school system. We interfere in terms of how school principals are appointment and once that is done and known or perceive to be so added challenges are adding to the already difficult task or managing a school. Too many of our principals are politically appointees. Consequently, the best and most suitable candidate is always denied the job if he/she does not have the political backing. Then again this is just the problem in the wider Jamaican society and therefore how could we expect better in this sphere. Having said that we can all conclude that enough research has been done in the arena of boys, underachievement and underperformance and as such no more is required in order to address the problem. The time is now at hand to find solutions and implement policies and programmes to save our boys who will become irresponsible men if we do not rescue them. Let us examine some of the solutions to the problem. One way of attempting to address the plight of our boys who are now “disadvantaged” is by “recuperative masculinity politics which calls for a reasserting of masculine privileges in light of the fact that the specific needs of boys are subsumed under the priority given to girls and minorities. We need to thrive for gender justice in our education system so boys can benefit equally from the teaching/learning experience.
There is also the need to urgently recast our current gender policy one way of doing so is to incorporate more men in the discourse to shape our national gender policy. It’s ludicrous to think that women only or a gender board dominated by women can advocate the needs of our boys and men. We also need to examine the possibility of creating so-called 'boy-friendly' curricula, assessment and pedagogical practices. We now know that boys learn differently than girls and therefore we should use this knowledge to refashion teaching methodologies that speak to both sexes in the classroom.  Our teachers colleges and universities should be challenged and given incentives to create or re-design new methods of teaching with a specific focus on boys. We need to create safe spaces for boys at our schools and engage them in meaningful discussions about notions of masculinity and get from them ideas and suggestions which could be implemented to address their issues. The society also needs to revisit how we ascribe and contribute ‘successes to those endeavours which education is not necessarily a factor. The (undervalued) social currency which we now use to judge success needs to be revalued.  We need to “make over” the education system with a macho view and “de-feminize” the education system. We need to view the issue of male underperformance and underachievement with a sense of urgency and dispatch, if not; we are going to continue to witness the spread of a deviant strand of hyper masculinity sweeping across the education system. This reconstruction of masculinity is already manifesting itself in all our schools. Our boys are wearing their school pants well below their waist and at times exposing their undergarments. Our boys have altered their uniforms both the pants and shirts so much that we can almost see all the contours of their body. Those boys who wear the correct uniform are teased and referred to as “old”. For many of our misguided boys to be young is to wear tight fitted khaki pants/uniform. Our boys have become more violent in recent years even to the point of physically abusing female teachers.  Male teachers over the years have endured physical attacks from our boys; however, this new attack on the female teachers by our boys should be viewed as wake up call for school administrators and policy makers about the urgent need to rescue our boys. Boys are bleaching their skin as much as the girls now in fact in some schools the majority of the “bleachers” are boys.  I will not even mention the fact that body painting or tattoo has all but taken over the skin of many of our students. I ask myself where the parents are; obviously the issue of parenting is for another time. It is no secret that our boys are lacking in positive role models and therefore we need to employ more male teachers. However, we should not just employ more male teachers in a vacuum we need to ensure that all our teachers are people of impeccable character. We need to re-masculinise the education system and bring to the classroom a wide range of constructive behaviours and masculinities which would challenge the hegemonic notions of masculinity and facilitate our boys from all social classes and backgrounds to excel in their given field of choice.
The Caribbean is at a crossroads and in order to move forward we need to invest more in our human capital. In fact Caribbean societies will not have sustainable development until we fix the problem of male underachievement and under performance by making education more ‘attractive’ to our males.

Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues.