Paul Williams, Contributor
Schoolboys walking along Duke Street downtown Kingston, their heads wrapped with bandannas. - Norman Grindley/ Deputy Chief Photographer
Amid more reports of Jamaican boys underperforming in schools, teaching methodology is now being fingered as the main reason by some commentators. However, this a very narrow and shallow way of addressing the matter.
In fact, there are many social factors that are affecting the academic performance of our boys, that have absolutely nothing to do with how they are taught. They are exposed to the same teaching and learning environment as the girls, yet they are trailing in basically every aspect of academic life. And, it is not that girls are brighter. There are bright girls, and there are bright boys, simply put.
The key to academic excellence is focus and application. This is where the girls have the edge over the boys. They are more focused, and they apply themselves better, for a myriad of reasons.
Conversely, in general, the boys have lost interest in education as a result of many factors, among them familial and communal pressure.
Across the nation, many boys live in communities where certain values and mores must be strictly followed, and if they dare to be different, then they stand the risk of being ostracised by their families, peers and associates. There is a prevailing culture in some communities where boys are not to be seen shut down poring over books and other academic material. They must be a part of the corner gatherings - playing dominoes, "scrimmage" football, and cricket; checking a girl; smoking and drinking, or just plain idling. It is hip, it is cool, it's all good, and they get the so-called respect that they crave. They do not want to be a misfit, so they simply walk the line. As such, their focus is not on academics; rather, it is to be a 'dads,' a 'gallis,' a 'shotta,' a 'Joe-grind,' a 'heavy hat.'
For, if they chose to be different, they must be prepared to be an outcast. Ms. Mattie's son must not be sitting over a book every day 'like him a gal.'
'Being like a gal' is a euphemism. In a country where the hypocrisy of homophobia is rife, many male students have to be careful that they don't send certain vibes to their family, friends and the wider community.
This pressure determines how much they surround themselves with academic-related matters and to some extent, the types of subjects that they do in school. They make sure not to sign up for certain subjects. So, you will not find some of them dead in a French, Spanish, literature, history, cookery, dance or drama class. Ironically, they are not doing so well in their preferred subjects either.
This brings us to the issue of where the girls will always do better than boys in English language. English language is compulsory for all students, so the boys have to attend English classes. And, that's where it ends. They simple refuse to speak English, much less learn it. They should not be 'speaky-spokey.' They are afraid of being called sissies.
Just imagine an inner-city youth speaking standard English among his peers, even for a second. It is not hip. Some boys are ridiculed by even their own family when they attempt to speak English. This is a very serious issue nationwide. Many Jamaican men simply refuse to speak the language. In the inner cities and beyond, the question is, "Why learn English, when I won't even use it?" So, as long as this stigma is attached to the use of English, boys will always be lagging behind girls in English exams. By the way, how many male teachers of English do you know?
As for literature, they do not see any possible reasons why they should sit down for a few hours with a Shakespeare or a Maya Angelou. Few of them will care abut the subliminal message of Macbeth's murder of King Duncan. They do not want to know why the caged bird sings. Though some of them fester as a sore, A Raisin In The Sun is just that. Green Days By The River has been replaced by 'Pan The River, Pan De Bank.' Thus, enter dancehall music.
This music form, which is so much a part of our popular culture, clearly has some cultural values. However, I believe it has helped to push our young men into academic decadence. For the most part, the message in the music is about the glorification of womanising; abuse of women - verbally, sexually and physically. It's about being a gun-hawk (shotta); about killing gays, 'bowcats' and informers; and, it's about 'blinging and rolling' in the finest. The majority of dancehall listeners are males and the lessons that are taught are well-learned. Therefore, the boys have stopped listening to the classroom teachers, and are now schooled in the 'University of Dancehall Music.' Their professors are deejays, many of whom can hardly sign their names. They try to live as the deejays do, and many of them even aspire to be deejays themselves, without realising that in most cases, there is no longevity in a dancehall career. The ones who survive this rough and tumble industry are few and far between.
Some people, including, ironically, some UWI professors, will tell us that dancehall lyrics are only a reflection of what is happening in the wider society. That's just nonsense! The music simply enforces and supports many of the ills in the Jamaican society. Their reasoning is that the lyrics are merely metaphorical, and there is no evidence to prove that youths are acting upon what they listen to.
'Every informa fi dead' cannot be metaphoric, it is an explicit directive to kill. The music has encouraged many males to abandon their academic pursuits, and it has destroyed the psyche of an entire generation of Jamaican youths, some of whom are themselves abandoned.
The issue of abandonment is multifaceted. Some of these youths do not know their fathers; for those who do, there is no father-son relationship. They are brought up like wild weeds along the way. Their hardworking mothers can't control them. They are too tired to know that their sons are not in bed at night. They are at night school, being tutored and coached by 'dons' and 'dads.'
The other aspect of abandonment concerns the care and concern that we show towards our young men. We expect them to survive on their own because they are boys, without knowing that many of them need the nurturing and support that we give to our girls. In many Jamaican homes, boys are brought up to be rough and tumble; they are to be outside doing manly things; they must become ballers and track stars, while the girls must study their books.
The girls are more likely to be supported - their parents, extended families, the community, the school, etc. But the boys in many cases are left to fend for themselves. We assume, wrongly, that they are OK. Well, they are not. They might not say it, being typically male, but many of them are going through emotional turmoil and are facing issues of identity of self, and low self-esteem, and many other psycho-social issues. Left figuratively to rummage through the garbage heaps of life, they have little sense of direction, merely hankering for the fleshpots of pleasure.
LOSS OF FOCUS
Jamaican boys are underperforming because they have lost their focus. They have succumbed to personal and societal pressures. They do not see education as a way out. They have an abundance of examples of many who have gone to universities and are still facing severe financial hardship. They are now rooted and grounded in a 'hustling' culture. So doing well in school is only a passing phase; it has no relevance to survival. Bleached faces and tight school pants are in. Studying is antithetical to the community spirit.
So our boys may be smart and intelligent but unfortunately, many have have lost their way, but principally, they have lost their focus. Jamaica needs a new paradigm to encourage our boys to take education seriously.
Paul Williams is an educator and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org