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

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

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

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


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. His findings add a new perspective to the "gender gap" in achievement.


The headline of Newsweek magazine shouts with breathless urgency, “The Boy Crisis. At Every Level of Education, They’re Falling Behind. What to Do?” This national cover story is just one of an avalanche of articles and books on what some have called the “new gender gap” in education: the significantly lower achievement of boys as compared to girls. These findings have produced heated debate. If girls are graduating from high school, completing college, and even entering graduate schools in higher number than boys are, what does this mean for gender inequality? Are boys and men now disadvantaged by gender?

This book examines the popular debate on the gender gap in education. It focuses on a long-term study of two low-income high schools—one urban and one rural—where girls noticeably outperformed boys. In contrast to most views of the gender gap, the findings of this book show that gender and achievement must be understood as intertwined with circumstances of race, class, and location. Moreover, my analysis reveals that, even in disadvantaged environments, boys’ underachievement does not signify a reversal of gender inequality but a hidden cost of the power associated with masculinity.

I thought about masculinity and the gender gap one stark winter day as I entered Woodrow Wilson High School, located in a low-income, predominately African American community. The school’s entrance usually teemed with boisterous teenagers, buses, cars, and the occasional glowering school administrator. But today a thick layer of snow blanketed the vast field in front of the school, casting an uncanny silence. Laughter from a lone group of boys abruptly broke the calm as they sprinted past the front doors throwing snowballs. One snowball sailed over a boy’s head and landed above the front doors on a wall peppered with graffiti. The frenzied writing and profane messages . . .

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