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Book Review

Learning the Hard Way: Masculinity, Place, and the Gender Gap in Education

From the introduction: “Women are more likely to enroll in higher education, comprising 56% of all undergraduates in 1999–2000…. Women are also more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree…. In high school, 65% of boys graduate in four years compared to 72% of girls…. Boys are more likely to be suspended, expelled, or held back in school, all of which are risk factors for dropping out of high school…. In addition, the shift in this educational trend has been dramatic: in 1960, 65% of all bachelor’s degrees were given to men; in 2005, 58% of all bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women.”

An avalanche of recent newspapers, weekly newsmagazines, scholarly journals, and academic books has helped to spark a heated debate by publishing warnings of a “boy crisis” in which male students at all academic levels have begun falling behind their female peers. In Learning the Hard Way, Edward W. Morris explores and analyzes detailed ethnographic data on this purported gender gap between boys and girls in educational achievement at two low-income high schools—one rural and predominantly white, the other urban and mostly African American. Crucial questions arose from his study of gender at these two schools. Why did boys tend to show less interest in and more defiance toward school? Why did girls significantly outperform boys at both schools? Why did people at the schools still describe boys as especially “smart”?

Morris examines these questions and, in the process, illuminates connections of gender to race, class, and place. This book is not simply about the educational troubles of boys, but the troubled and complex experience of gender in school. It reveals how particular race, class, and geographical experiences shape masculinity and femininity in ways that affect academic performance.