Saturday, 27 June 2009

21st Century Boys by Sue Palmer - book review


If boyhood is in a gloomy state, then Sue Palmer's latest book, 21st Century Boys, scatters light on it like a fizzing Catherine Wheel. She greatly regrets what she sees as the modern tendency to diminish the importance of care and caring attitudes, battling the discourses of "outcomes" and "efficiency" that can make any stay in hospital an experience of marvellous technological sophistication mixed up with a feeling that no-one has any time for you.

Likewise, Palmer worries about the lack of care given to young boys in nurseries and schools, fearing that an increasing policy emphasis on narrow educational results along with an almost pathological dread of risk has practically imprisoned little boys to tiny desks in little classrooms and a housebound life of TV and video games.

I find it incredible now to think of how boys in the 1970s (perhaps I should declare my own personal history and say we) played out in the streets, parks and woodlands round our neighbourhoods and spent lots of time in the early years of schooling being physically active, often outdoors.

But here already I feel my first objection to Palmer's argument: why the focus on boys? Aren't all children now less free than they used to be, more subjected to the moral and other panics that take hold of the adults around them? Palmer argues otherwise, seeing boys as being uniquely vulnerable. Girls, she suggests, can survive a toxic media of TV, internet and games, and cope in early infancy with desk-bound colouring-in and worksheets. Boys can't.

There are, of course, interesting arguments to be had about the innate differences between boys and girls, but I wouldn't recommend Palmer as a guide to them. At time, she writes like someone standing at a pick-and-mix counter of educational, social and psychological research, grabbing the biggest and shiniest things she can see. So whilst she claims that boys are in "freefall" educationally, she doesn't discuss that fact that by accepted measures, the educational attainment of boys has increased, though not as much as girls. For example, in 1995 49% of all children achieved level 4 or higher in English by the end of their primary schooling ; in 2008 70% of boys achieved a level 4 in English and Maths One might, quite legitimately, query the reliability of SATs data; but if there is any evidence of boys being in "freefall", Palmer does not cite it, and the official statistics suggest otherwise.

Palmer builds a great deal of her argument that boys are "lost" and in "freefall" on the claim that their brains are innately different to girls', and less well-adapted to the modern world. She draws on the work of Simon Baron-Cohen, the Cambridge psychologist and expert on autism, who theorises that there is a male S-Type (systemizing) brain and a female E-Type (empathising) brain.

Playing up this gender difference argument, she neglects to comment that Baron-Cohen's theories are contested, and far from being accepted as factual in his field. Baron-Cohen himself is pretty game about this, responding to a recent critique of his work by proposing a notional pub-bet over whether his theories will stand the test of time and conceding that the drinks may end up being on him. Palmer admits to no such uncertainty.

So, any reader seeking the "cutting edge research" promised by the book's blurb would be well advised to be cautious. Reading Palmer is like reading academic research by lightning – a few theories are ferociously illuminated, but with no context, flow, or consideration of other points of view.

To take just a few examples, Palmer cites the findings of the EPPE research project that there is a "small but significant difference" between children who attend nursery childcare before the age of three and those who do not, with the former showing slightly higher levels of withdrawn, sad or aggressive behaviour. But she ignores the wider findings of the EPPE project that quality nursery education and childcare benefits children, and also the specific finding that "an earlier start (before 3 years) being related to better intellectual development at ages 6 and 7 and to improved independence, concentration and sociability at entry to primary school and age 6".

She approves of Steve Biddulph saying that "quality nursery care for young children doesn't exist", yet later she applauds the "successful" Nordic countries, without acknowledging that twice as many babies and toddlers are in nursery care in Sweden and Denmark than in England. Whilst she is correct in stating that most teachers in English secondary schools are women, she neglects to add that this was also true 12 years ago (though the proportion of women has risen slightly since then), and she also omits to discuss the fact that men are much more likely to rise to senior posts in secondary schools despite being in the minority. This might call into question her notion that schools no longer provides boys with enough "male role models", a role which, incidentally, she feels is lacking in modern schools without ever saying what it actually is.

Whilst Palmer can be one-sided when it comes to citing research and facts, her discussion of news, culture and society seems simply odd to me. She rejects what she calls "a political philosophy known as game theory" in a way which suggests she hasn't even got round to looking it up on Wikipedia. Feminists are attacked for leading society to reject "the masculine virtues of altrusim, honour and courage", although she fails to name a single feminist who is opposed to these virtues. Later in the book, she expresses her regret about the resignation of London's Deputy Mayor Ray Lewis, which she ascribes to his failure to "tick all the boxes of a liberal, unisex establishment" and to "rumours" of scandals in his past. One might wonder how Palmer measures Lewis against her three masculine virtues, given that he lied about being a magistrate and acted with sufficient dishonour and lack of altruism to be barred from holding office in the Church of England.

Despite these reservations, there are commendable aspects to 21st Century Boys. Palmer is surely on the right track when she points to the ill-effects of the excessive formality of much early years and infant education in England, and she argues well that children should have more freedom to play out and that parents should be more relaxed about rough-and-tumble play. She has shaken off the paranoid edge to her earlier book, Toxic Childhood, which postulated a future in which a super-fertile underclass might bring down civilization, presenting herself now as "cock-eyed optimist".

The real problem with Palmer's book, is that there is nothing really to engage with because it lack coherence. The Nordic countries are great, but childcare is bad; boys are fragile, but we shouldn't wrap them up in cotton wool; parents should be more confident and authoritative, but they need pages of Palmer's advice and instructions – and so on. She says that she is not calling for "women to return to domestic servitude", but is quick to apportion particular blame to mothers. It is mothers who are glued to daytime TV and social networking sites, who become excessively risk averse and obsessed with maintaining perfect homes, a mother who is cited as saying "I don't have time to bring up my son.". It is hard to imagine a working mother reading this book without feeling guilt, or rage, or both.

Dazzled with questionable facts, tiny selections from complex research, and prejudices dressed up as reasoned argument, the reader is left like a spectator after a fireworks show: it all seemed very impressive at the time, but nothing of any substance is left behind.

First printed in spiked-online