Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Boys, Masculinities and Literacy: Addressing the Issues

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Boys, Masculinities and Literacy: Addressing the Issues

Article excerpt

Introduction

Discussion about boys' lower literacy performance relative to that of girls continues to persist in what may be termed a post-feminist era of backlash and 'recuperative masculinity politics' (Lingard & Douglas, 1999; Foster, Skelton & Kimmel, 2001; Martino & Berrill, 2003; Alloway et al., 2003; Gilbert, 1998; Epstein et al., 1998). There is a powerful discourse articulated by the men's rights lobby group and the media in Australia about the need to cater for the ways in which mainstream boys naturally behave and learn at school as a consequence of their biological sex. In fact, it has been argued that boys' apparent failure and disengagement with schooling are somehow related to the issue of the feminisation of schooling and feminist intervention in education, with its focus on improving learning outcomes for girls (see Kenway, 1995; Yates, 1997, Mills, 2003; Lingard & Douglas, 1999; Weiner et al., 1997 for a discussion about the feminist backlash debate). This, it has been argued, is about recuperating or reinstating what is perceived to be a normal or natural masculinity for boys. I want to argue in this paper that it is not really possible to develop an adequate understanding of boys' underachievement and lack of engagement with particular literacy practices without paying heed to this broader socio-political context. This context needs to be understood in terms of the emergence and a resurgence of a 'new Right' neo-liberal political agenda (Apple, 2001) in boys' education, with its accompanying desire to reinstate what is perceived to be a normal or natural heterosexualised masculinity (Martino & Berrill, 2003; Martino, 2000; Renold, 2003; Mills, 2001).

The whole notion of boys as the 'new disadvantaged' informs public debate about boys' education and the Australian government's official position on boys' lower literacy performance relative to that of girls (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training, 2002; DEST, 2003). In fact, statistics pertaining to boys' poorer literacy performance, as a specific gendered phenomenon, have been used by the Right to fuel the 'moral panic' and crisis about boys' disadvantaged status relative to girls (see Hall & Coles, 2001; Rowan et al., 2002). While I do not want to ignore or downplay the significance of boys' underachievement in particular forms of literate practice, I do want to provide a more nuanced analysis and critique of the simplistic ways in which this has been used to further construct boys as 'the new disadvantaged' without providing some understanding of

* the limitation of literacy test score data which purports to measure only students' capacities to engage with narrow forms of print based literate practice (Alloway & Gilbert, 1998)

* which boys are most at risk (Collins et al., 2000)

* the influence of the social construction of masculinity on boys' literacy practices (Martino, 1997, 2001; Millard, 1997; Alloway et al., 2002; Rowan et al., 2002; Martino & Pallotta-Chiarolli, 2003)

* the impact of teacher knowledges in developing interventionist strategies to engage boys in the literacy classroom (Martino, Lingard & Mills, forthcoming).

In addition to this, my aim is to explore the social consequences and implications of particular explanations for boys' poorer achievement and engagement in literacy. These explanations tend to centre on biological accounts of brain/sex and hormonal differences which are supposedly meant to account for boys' apparent inability to sit and read quietly (Alloway et al., 2002; Gilbert & Gilbert, 1998). They also draw on populist beliefs and literature about the need for more male role models to ameliorate the feminising and emasculating influences of female dominated primary schools and English departments (Martino, forthcoming).

The point I want to emphasise in this paper is that such explanations translate into particular approaches to addressing the 'boy problem', which have far reaching consequences in terms of the kinds of pedagogies and curriculum that get implemented in the literacy classroom (see Martino & Meyenn, 2002). …

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