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Boys' Selves: Identity and Anxiety in the Looking Glass of School Life

by Michael C. Reichert & Peter Kuriloff - 2004

In the last decade, boys' lives, and particularly their school achievement, have come under increasing scrutiny. While dominant discourses have stressed boys as victims, schools as failing boys, and an essentialist view that boys will be boys, few take account that boys develop their self-concepts in the looking glass of the variously gendered academic and social curricula of schools. Yet understanding how boys form their sense of self is crucial, as much research has shown that students' self-concepts have a strong relationship with their grades. This exploratory study attempts to address this need, finding that the addition of a measure of boys' social anxiety significantly enhanced the statistical explanation of self-concept. Follow-up interviews with 27 boys helped us to understand the nature of their social anxiety and its relationship to the power dynamics and traditions of the particular school we studied. We conclude by suggesting ways such schools may be able to help boys reduce their anxiety and enhance their senses of self.

In the glare of considerable publicity and a nascent movement on their behalf, boys’ lives have become more charged. The terrible weight of mortality differentials, poor educational outcomes and public violence, not to mention further progress in girls’ opportunities, has come to rest on the way we represent young males and the possibilities we hold for their lives (Bowker, 1998; Gurian, 1996; Kindlon & Thompson, 1999; McLean, 1996; Pollack, 1998; Sabo & Gordon, 1995; Somers, 2000). Boyshow they are understood, positioned, served, and serve usobviously remain central to the societies we hope for.

In particular, renewed interest has been directed to boys’ school achievement. While boys’ achievement has been a subject of concern for centuries (Cohen, 1998), three recent discourses have sounded a particularly strident note in many Western societies (Epstein, Elwood, Hey, & Maw, 1998, p. 6). The poor boys view advances the notion that boys are victimized in schools─ by female teachers, advocates for girls, a poorly adapted pedagogy, and the like. The failing schools, failing boys view holds that boys simply suffer more than girls from the defects of contemporary education. A third view, the familiar boys will be boys apology, reasserts an essentialist faith that biology creates inescapable limits to boys’ ability to sit still in classrooms. These discourses vie with one another to raise the alarm that boys’ lives are even more at risk than in the past.

Perhaps in response to such dark fears, schools allow boys little play in their development, typically maintaining careful gender curricula for their male students. Many schools are occupied by routines, practices, and ideas about being male that are intended to reproduce particular identities from one generation to the next. The pointedness and pressure of these masculinity curricula can constitute a vehement regime. Connell’s (1996) description of ‘‘masculinizing practices’’ (e.g., dress codes, rituals, values) and ‘‘masculinity vortices’’ (e.g., boys’ and girls’ subjects, discipline systems, sports practices) catalogues the many ways schools develop practices which inscribe socially preferred patterns of masculinity into school relationships (pp. 214–216). Both as sites for their socialization in an implicit curriculum for being male and as sites within which boys are pressured to play a customary part in the collective social practice, schools invest considerable effort teaching boys who they are and who they should become.

But how do these processes affect boys themselves? How do boys play (Thorne, 1994) with the possibilities offered by these gendering structures to create identities that represent ‘‘subjectively meaningful and intentional conduct’’ (Dannefer, 1999, p. 106)? While research consistently shows that we can account for a good deal of the variation in children’s school achievement by knowing the strength of their self-concepts (Hansford & Hattie, 1982; Shavelson, Hubner, & Stanton, 1976; Zirkel, 1971), there have been only a few efforts to describe how boys actually build these self- concepts in the context of their lives in schools (Connell, 1989; Mac An Ghaill, 1994; Willis, 1977). We are still in great need of studies that more closely follow boys’ lived school experiences and try to map the routes available to them to form healthy and positive self-concepts.

The manner in which children form self-concepts was conceptualized initially by James, whose I-Self and Me-Self described the dynamic interplay between a boy’s ‘‘self-as-knower’’ and his ‘‘self-as-known’’ (Leary & Tangney, 2003, p. 7). To describe the interwovenness of consciousness and experience─ thoughts and feelings about self with important school outcomes like connection, motivation and achievement─ a looking glass model of self-concept development, first offered by Cooley (1902) a century ago, is still useful. This model holds that children’s ‘‘self-concepts are largely derived from what they do with the images they find gazing into the looking glass of external social appraisals’’ (Ryan, 1991, p. 259). How a boy approaches books and numbers, the arts and sports, how he forms friendships and mentoring relationships in school, how he interprets the results of his efforts─ these and other responses are mediated by an emerging self-theory which is ‘‘essentially a social phenomenon that arises out of social experiences’’ (Mischel & Morf, 2003, p. 17). We become, in other words, ‘‘what we think other people think we are’’ (Pajares & Schunk, 2002, p. 6). Children’s vulnerability to the reflected appraisals of the looking glass has been called ‘‘the great blessing or tragedy of self and self- belief construction and development’’ (Pajares & Schunk, 2002, p. 7).

While it is vital for boys’ self-concept development, the school looking glass is hardly objective, unbiased or undistorted. It is also hardly acknowledged by boys or the adults who work with them. As the growing body of school-based research indicates (Connell, 2003), schools manage boys’ imaginations about their identities with carefully patrolled and intergenerationally maintained images, reward structures and gender practices. But the operation of schools’ hidden curricula takes place on the level of the taken-for-granted, the way things are. The biases inherent in such gender systems powerfully influence the way schools respond to different boys and reflect back to them appraisals of who they are. As Connell wrote, ‘‘Practice never occurs in a vacuum. It always responds to a situation and situations are always structured in ways that admit certain possibilities and not others’’ (1995, p. 65).

At the most general level, dominant practices of masculinity exercise significant influence in male development. As Donaldson (1993) wrote of hegemonic masculinity, ‘‘it is exclusive, anxiety-provoking, internally and hierarchically differentiated, brutal and violent’’ (p. 646). Those boys whose circumstances of biography, class, ethnicity or family enable them to fit more closely to their school’s historical bias are more likely to receive flattering images reflected back to them. To the extent that the looking glass offers some boys diminished or derogating images, we would expect these boys not only to feel badly but also to react with a host of defensive measures that shape their school behavior as well as their identities. For example, Aronson (2002) found that when faced with the possibility of stereotyping or other forms of social stigmatization, children’s ability to function can become so compromised by anxiety that their performance on a wide range of school tasks deteriorates.

A series of works describing boys in various educational contexts has detailed some of the anxious outcomes produced by different levels of public embrace. Cookson and Persell (1985), for example, described the routine acceptance of casualties built into elite schooling. Willis (1977) and Connell (1989) followed working-class boys through schooling experiences and described their protest masculinity response to experiences of shame,  humiliation and exclusion. Ferguson (2000) and MacLeod (1990) described reactions among African American boys whose experience in schools mirrors the bias and prejudice of the society’s looking glass. The collective threat of bias experienced by minority group members consistently has been found to undermine these students’ trust in their schools and, as a consequence, also their motivation and performance (Cohen & Steele, 2003).

What these findings imply for boys’ lives in schools, particularly at this time of heightened concern and increased attention, is the focus of the present study. How do boys manage the limiting offers of gender curricula to build positive self-concepts? To what extent do schools’ looking glasses offer boys clear and positive images of themselves, useful in their work of identity construction? Which boys, under what conditions, succeed in creating a generous sense of worth and possibility? Some work has already tried to shed light on these questions (see Connell, 2003). While these and other studies have established a framework for the ‘‘What about the boys?’’ debates, few have tried to explore in detail boys’ construction of self- concepts in the reflected looking glass offered by particular schools. The present study represents an initial attempt to track this process, employing a very broad-gauged survey methodology together with open-ended interviews of boys at one particular school. Our hope was that this study would enable us to generate hypotheses that we could pursue more systematically in the course of our ongoing research.


The Independent Boys School (TIBS) is a junior kindergarten through 12th grade day school, founded in 1880s and located in the wealthy suburbs of a major eastern city, to which the authors have special access as a result of ongoing consulting roles. TIBS’s mission statement says it is a college preparatory school designed to provide ‘‘superior liberal arts education’’ to boys from different backgrounds. It stresses the importance of creating a challenging and supportive environment, that sets ‘‘high standards of character and conduct’’ to develop each student’s ‘‘full intellectual, moral, social, artistic, athletic and creative potential.’’ The school has been a prominent leader in the field of boys’ education.

The measures we chose for the quantitative portion of the study reflected various dimensions of social identity (age, race, parents’ educational level, anxiety, masculine identity) that previous research suggested were related to children’s success in school. Our hope was to outline in some detail the relationship between boys’ self-concept and their academic performance. We regressed these measures on a well-established multidimensional measure of self-concept, while holding a key measure of academic achievement (year-end GPA) constant.


With the permission and sponsorship of the school, which has embraced research on boys’ development and education, we asked all of the students in the 6th through the 12th grades at TIBS to participate in the survey portion of the study (N = 499). The survey was administered at various times by homeroom teachers in each grade, usually during advisory periods. Through a passive consent process, we excluded some students and eliminated others not present on the day the survey was administered. Also omitting incomplete forms as we cleaned the data we collected, we were left with 382 useable questionnaires, distributed almost perfectly across the seven grades.


Self-Descriptive Questionnaire II (SDQII)

This scale (Marsh, Parker, & Barnes, 1985) contains 11 subscales measuring multidimensional, theoretically distinct aspects of self-concept. Of these dimensions, the questions on the General Self sub-scale measured those self-construals we were most interested in: students’ overall self-esteem, self- worth and self-satisfaction. Example of the items include ‘‘I can’t do anything right’’ and ‘‘Overall, I have a lot to be proud of.’’ Respondents rate the items, about half of which are negatively worded, on a scale from 1 = false to 6 = true. We modified the wording of some items to make them more suitable for use with 6th to 12th graders. Our own factor analytic work showed that this did not alter the original structure of the subscale. Internal consistency also remained high (alpha = .89).


At the conclusion of the 1998–1999 school year, we calculated each student’s GPA. We also calculated a class rank by ranking each student against all other students in his grade. The correlation of grade point average and class rank was .98 (ρ<.000). Given this, and the relative stability of GPA, we employed it as our measure of achievement.


To understand the constituents of self-concept, we employed a measure of the degree to which boys experience stress from their gender role and a measure of their level of anxiety. In addition, we asked boys to identify their mother and father’s educational attainment and race. After examining our correlational findings within the context of our interview data, we chose several sub-scales from our measures, together with mother’s educational level and self-reported race to test a multiple regression model which best reflected our understanding of what the boys’ told us about their experience.

Gender Role Conflict Scale (GRCS)

This scale (O’Neil, Helms, Gable, David, & Wrightsman, 1986) contains four subscales that measure theoretically distinct aspects of the strain men feel when the way they have constructed their gender identity has negative consequences for themselves or others. We employed questions from three of the subscales for our purposes. The Success, Power, and Competition subscale measures boys’ perceptions of the importance of gaining personal worth with items like ‘‘I strive to be more successful than others.’’ The Restrictive Emotionality subscale assesses how students feel about their own feelings. Example items include ‘‘Strong emotions are difficult for me to understand’’ and ‘‘I have difficulty expressing my tender feelings.’’ The Conflict Between Work and Family subscale examines how much stress boys feel as they negotiate school and home demands with items like ‘‘My responsibilities in school affect the quality of my leisure and family life’’ and ‘‘Overwork and stress caused by a need to achieve in school hurts my life.’’ After modifying the wording of some items to make them suitable for use with younger boys, factor analysis showed the original structure of the subscales remained intact. Reliability, as measured by Chronbach’s Apha, showed that internal consistency continued to be acceptable (alphas = .84 for General Success, .72 for Restrictive Emotionality, and .87 for Conflict Between Work and Family).

Revised Children’s Manifest Anxiety Scale

This scale (Reynolds & Richmond, 1985) contains 37 yes/no items designed to measure the level of anxiety experienced by children and adolescents. It contains four subscales. The Physiological Anxiety subscale measures respondents’ somatization with items such as ‘‘Often I have trouble getting my breath.’’ The Worry Over-Sensitivity subscale measures children’s level of overt worry through items such as ‘‘I am nervous.’’ The Social Concerns- Concentration subscale assesses children’s anxiety around their social relations with items such as ‘‘Other people are happier than I am.’’ The Lie scale measures respondents’ tendency to answer in a socially desirable fashion with items such as ‘‘I am always kind.’’ The overall Chronbach alpha level for our sample was .85. The alphas for the subscales in our sample were .58 for Physiological Anxiety, .60 for Social Concerns, and .81 for Worry-Over Sensitivity, indicating adequate levels of reliability for exploratory research. Factor analysis confirmed the construct validity of the three anxiety sub-scales.

Demographic Variables

Because we were interested in the relationship of social identities to self- concept development, holding academic success constant, and how those shaped and in turn were shaped by the more psychological dimensions of self-concept that we were measuring, we collected key demographic data on the students. We asked the boys to tell us the highest degree obtained by each parent. Because TIBs has been successful drawing students from a wide range of social circumstances, we believed this variable constituted a reasonable measure of family’s social capital, and therefore the social capital students brought with them to school. Further, we knew from personal experience that these early adolescent and adolescent boys could accurately describe their parents’ educational background. As mothers’ and fathers’ educational levels were highly correlated (r =.52; ρ<.000) but mothers’ had more variation, we used it as our proxy for social capital. We also asked about the subjects’ race and the year they entered TIBS.


Respondents answered the survey on scanable data sheets that we then fed directly into an SAS program. We ran initial correlations and regressions as well as Alphas and factor analyses on our modified scales. Given the exploratory nature of the study, we then examined our results in the context of our interview findings. This enabled us to formulate a predictive model that appeared to make sense theoretically while explaining a substantial amount of the variation in boys’ self-concepts.

Quantitative Results

After examining our preliminary analyses, we developed an exploratory model to use in explaining boys’ general self-concept. Though we dropped race as a variable in the regression modeling because, for statistical purposes, there were too few students of color, a comparison of regression models containing White students while excluding and then including African American and Asian American students (n = 21 and 21, respectively) showed their inclusion did not affect the overall R2. Further, a comparison of bivariate correlations between the dependent variable, General Self-Concept, and the independent variable most powerfully associated with it─ Social Concerns (Anxiety) (see Table 3 later)─ showed there were no important differences among the racial groups. Indeed, Table 1 shows that despite the large differences in n among the groups, the magnitude of the correlations is very similar. For these reasons, we felt comfortable retaining the perspective of Asian and African Americans within the qualitative analysis.

We dropped several subscales from each of our instruments because they appeared to have less theoretical or explanatory power than other subscales. The resulting model included Mother’s Educational Level, three subscales of the Gender Role Conflict Scale (Conflict)─ measuring the degree of boys’ emotional restriction, the amount of work and family stress they experienced and the degree of their drive for success and power─  three scales of the Revised Children’s Manifest Anxiety Scale (Anxiety)─ measuring the amount of physiological anxiety and social concern they experienced as well as the amount they worried, together with the General Self-Concept Subscale of SDQII. Table 2 presents the intercorrelations of these variables together with their relationships to school achievement as measured by GPA.

Table 2 confirms previous findings in diverse school settings: The GPA of boys attending TIBS was moderately to strongly correlated with their mothers’ educational attainment as well as with our measure of self-concept. Boys with better-educated mothers, who had better general self-concepts, did better than boys with weaker self-concepts and less well-educated mothers.

The matrix in Table 2 contains two other notable sets of correlations. With one exception, there were moderate to very strong relationships among measures of gender role conflict and measures of anxiety. Boys who felt more restricted in their emotionality experienced more social and physiological anxiety and worried more than did boys who felt less

Table 1. Bivariate correlation of Social Concerns (Anxiety) and General Self- Concept by race







African American



Asian American



Notes: *ρ<.10, **ρ<.05, ***ρ<.01.

Table 2. Bivariate correlations of variables related to General Self-Concept



Mother’s education


Restrictive Emotion-ality

Work/ Family Conflict

Drive for Success/ Power

Physio-logial Anxiety

Social Anxiety




Mother’s Education







Restrictive Emotion- ality





Work and Family Conflict






Drive for Success and Power







Physio-logical Anxiety








Social Anxiety







0.51 ***









0.46 ***

0.53 ***


General Self-Concept







0.34 ***

-0.50 ***

0.33 ***

Notes: *ρ<.10. **ρ<.05. ***ρ<.01.

restricted. Similarly, boys who felt more school-home conflict and stress worried more and were more anxious than boys who experienced less school-home stress. Finally, there were moderate correlations between Power and Success motivation and Physiological Anxiety and Worry. Boys with stronger motivations for success and power worried less and felt less physiological anxiety than boys with weaker motivation. To discover how these variables combine to account for variations in boys’ self-concepts, holding mothers’ education and GPA constant, we used a stepwise procedure to regress them on our measure of boys’ overall self-concept. Table 3 presents the results for General Self-Concept, the dimension most central to our investigation.

GPA, by itself, explained 6% of the variation in boys’ General Self-Concept scores. Knowing mother’s educational level added another 1%. While Age and Work-Family Conflict explained no additional variation, Restrictive Emotionality (Conflict) added an additional 6%. Finally, in the ultimate model that held all those variables constant (Table 3), Social Concerns (Anxiety) uniquely explained 16% of the variation. Together the variables explained 29% of the variation in General Self-Concept. When Social Concerns (Anxiety) was entered into the equation, Restrictive Emotionality lost its predictive power, suggesting that it is contained within the factor, Social Concerns (Anxiety). In sum, Social Concerns (Anxiety) more than doubles the explanatory power of the model, when holding boys’ academic achievement, mother’s education, and level of gender role conflict constant.

The results of our exploratory multiple regression analysis lend support to the notion that boys we studied constructed their sense of self within the

Table 3. Models predicting general self-concept


Model 1

Model 2

Model 3

Model 4

Model 5

Academic achievement







Background characteristics

  Mother’s education











Gender Role Conflict

  Restrictive Emotionality




  Work and Family Conflict




Manifest Anxiety

  Social Anxiety















Sample Size






Notes: *ρ<.10. **ρ<.05. ***ρ<.01.

crucible of school and that the ways they did this had a profound effect on the outcome. Thus, the variables that explained a large proportion of variation in self-concept, holding achievement constant, reflected the boys’ social background and the degree of anxiety they experienced related to social relations. It is obvious and well established to say that boys who do better academically feel better about themselves and come from families with higher educational attainment (and arguably more cultural capital). However, as far as we can determine, it is an important new finding to show that, when holding these variables constant, the level of social uncertainty boys experience makes an independent and relatively large contribution to their views of themselves. It suggests that apart from their families’ social class positions, how comfortably boys adapt to their school’s social ecology has a profound effect on the way they come to feel about themselves in general.

Qualitative Analysis

The contribution made by boys’ concerns about their social relations to the strength of their self-concepts reinforced our belief in the significance of a looking glass perspective on self-concept development processes in schools. While the Social Concerns (Anxiety) subscale sampled the domain of trait anxiety related to social worries (Reynolds & Richmond, 1985) with items such as ‘‘I feel that others do not like the way I do things,’’ ‘‘I feel someone will tell me that I do things the wrong way,’’ and ‘‘A lot of people are against me,’’ it seemed to us that the expectancies and self-beliefs developed by boys as they experience themselves in a school culture could be understood at a more finely-grained level. To get closer to the phenomenon of boys’ experience, we interviewed a sample of boys from TIBS. Using an active consent process, in which anonymity was assured, we conducted hour-long interviews with 16 boys from 1999–2000. We also included interviews of 11 young men from an earlier study who had graduated from the school and were currently in college. Our sampling strategy was to identify and approach boys from each grade, as well as several graduates, blocked for race, class, ethnicity and achievement level (upper and lower quartile and middle half), asking them if they were willing to participate in a study which would provide feedback to the school on boys’ experience.

This sampling strategy yielded the following results for White boys: in the bottom quartile, 1 was upper class, 2 were upper middle class and 5 were working class; in the middle 2 quartiles, 1 was upper class, 2 were upper middle class, and 3 were working class; and in the top quartile, 1 was upper class and 2 were working class. Among African American boys, the following results were found: in the bottom quartile, 1 was middle class and 3 were poor; in the middle quartiles, 1 was upper middle class and 1 was poor; and in the upper quartile, 1 was upper middle class and 1 was poor. Finally, the two other boys, one Jewish and one Pakistani, were upper middle class and in the top quartile of their class.

During the interviews, we asked the boys to describe themselves, their parents’ attitudes toward their schooling, and their views of their own place in the school. We asked them to contextualize these thoughts by explaining their views about the varieties of social identities within the school and about how they saw such differences reflected within the school’s multiple hierarchies (e.g., academic, social, athletic, extracurricular). This wide- ranging interview protocol helped participants to describe their lives in school and, through their stories, enabled us to glimpse the impact of the school’s looking glass on their experience of themselves.

We recorded and transcribed all interviews. The three primary members of the research team, first individually, then collectively, coded sample interviews for emerging themes. We used these to develop a preliminary coding tree and, assisted by the qualitative analysis software program QSR NUD*IST, Version 4.0 (Richards & Richards, 1997), used this framework to code all sentences of every interview. This coding was conducted, first individually and then collectively by us and our research assistant. We compared, discussed and resolved differences among us. Reviewing our results, we then refined our categories into a set of themes that best captured what the boys had told us about their experiences.

This methodology produced a set of 11 thematic categories that ran throughout the interviews. These themes covered many different aspects of boys’ experience in the school. For example, one theme heard in many of the interviews had to do with the school’s curriculum for difference and boys’ experiences of fitting in or not, as well as of prejudice. Another theme had to do with intergroup conflict and the place of identity in school life. A third focused on strategies boys employed as they negotiated the academic requirements of school.

Our analysis of these themes suggested a story of marginality/centrality, especially along lines of race and class, for boys at an elite school (Kuriloff & Reichert, 2003). Viewed through the lens of a school’s curriculum of privilege, inclusion and difference, these qualitative themes offered wonderful insight into the drill of an elite school and the manner in which boys from different backgrounds navigated its social and academic geography. While not explicitly modeled on the Rugby-type British public schools, TIBS followed its modernist educational ideal to develop a highly ritualized curriculum that emphasized rigor, conformity and hierarchy (Cookson & Persell, 1985). How this curriculum affected boys from quite different social positions, advantaging some, discouraging others, was one story told by our qualitative data.

For the present study, however, we were interested to view these same data through the lens of our quantitative findings: that boys who develop strong self-concepts were likely to be boys who experienced less social anxiety than other boys. Hearing of a school masculinity curriculum that establishes such clear demarcations between right and wrong behaviors, between ‘‘winners’’ and ‘‘losers,’’ we sought to understand how this culture’s looking glass affected boys’ self-concept development. Using the same process of collective coding and analysis by the research team, we mined the 11 original thematic categories to discover several overarching themes that offered important insights into the nature of boys’ experience of themselves in this school and the origins of anxiety found to be significant in the survey data. The three themes we discovered this way track reciprocal processes in which boys’ experiences of school life and the strategies they developed to master it both affected and were affected by their emergent sense of themselves.

We learned that most boys respond to the social geography of the school, and the paths available to them for navigating through it, by carefully cultivating public identities. These identities emerged as reflections of the school’s social terrain and incorporated some of its features, even including details that were sometimes quite derogatory to the boys themselves and their families. This experience of derogatory reflection seemed to cause some boys significant anxiety. We elucidate this process through the case study of one boy of color, a high-achieving student from an affluent family, because his experience poignantly illustrates the experience of the group of students in our sample who absorbed unsteady and unflattering feedback from the school’s social life.

Further, we discovered that boys employed a variety of strategies in their efforts to establish a place for themselves within these social relations. Often, at least for boys who find the school’s embrace less than wholehearted, these strategies created considerable uncertainty, conflict and compromise, producing additional anxiety. We tell the story of this social uncertainty, and its impact on how some boys think about themselves, from the standpoint of these narrators, including one boy from a less affluent family who achieved the school’s highest form of validation.

Finally, the interviews drew our attention to the impact of experiences of exclusion that precluded some boys’ access to the school’s formal and informal recognitional systems and created in them a steady state of tension. These were boys who were clearly out of the school’s mold, from neighborhoods, family cultures and experiences well outside of the capacity of many teachers and students to understand, much less appreciate. Their anxiety seemed to stem from the realization that they could not achieve recognition, no matter how hard they tried, and yet still had to make the best of the possibilities offered by the school.

Finding One’s Self in a Funhouse Mirror

Among the boys we interviewed, Subha1 a first generation Pakistani American, stood out for his passion for justice and his dedication to the school’s pursuit of this ideal. He was also an outstanding student. Over the summer prior to his senior year, Subha had attended a statewide leadership program with a very diverse and highly talented group of students. His experience there cast his years at TIBS in a new light and he returned to school to organize a series of actions by students of color, including the writing of a powerful letter to the school’s trustees urging the hiring of more faculty of color and a clearer embrace of diversity in admissions and curriculum.

We met with Subha during this period. He had had the unfortunate experience of being one of few students of color attending the lower grades of TIBS and told us how an encounter with racist stereotypes affected his view of himself during his younger years:

I guess I was really young and didn’t understand what was going on and I was just trying to fit in, because it was my first year here and I was just different, obviously, I was one of the few minority kids in the grade. And I couldn’t identify with much and so I was just trying to assimilate, I guess, kind of blend in and not cause too much trouble, just find my way around the place. I was working hard and then this kid comes up to me and yells at me, the first time anyone ever said anything about my color or being different, you know. I thought I was just as American as anyone else. It was pretty shocking. I went home and thought about it . . . ‘‘Am I really that different? I mean, I talk and act like the other kids.’’ It made me look inside and think, ‘‘Hey, I really am, I guess, different, the way this kid sees me.’’

Through this story, and others heard in the course of our research, we learned how those who perceive that they must endeavor to fit in, blend in, assimilate, or just find their way around the place can respond to this challenge with uncertainty and confusion as they endeavor to develop identities which assimilate their troubling experiences. Subha forged a picture of himself as different in the mirror of social life at his school. Because he felt that place to be less secure than for other boys (‘‘I’m easy to pick on because I stand out’’) he was startled, shocked. His efforts to respond to his reflection in the looking glass of peer feedback involved modifications to his self-concept (‘‘Hey, I really am, I guess, different’’). Even as a top student, one of relatively high socioeconomic status, he nonetheless developed a sense of who he could be which was circumscribed by what he believed others in the community could accept of him: ‘‘It was pretty tough those first years because I was trying to find my way. I come here and I can’t really be different. It’s not really allowed. So . . . I felt I had to assimilate in order to be accepted.’’

From Subha’s story, we learned about the critical power of an institutions’ particular history in shaping recognitional opportunities for students. Propelled by this history, a recognitional curriculum seems to offer some boys validation and embrace while it offers other boys feedback about difference and deficiency, distorted impressions about their skin color, ethnicity, religion and social class. Like a funhouse mirror, the distorted reflections left Subha unclear about what he was seeing, who he was. His sense of self, his imagination for who he could become, came to be dominated by his effort to find a position from which to view himself in the social ecology of the school:

But it’s not as easy for me as a normal Caucasian kid, you know, because . . . it feels like I have got to prove myself every day. While these kids can just come in and just be here . . . you know, it’s like they are allowed to be here . . . It gets tough after a while, you know, it wears on you.

In a similar way, over the course of his years in this school as Subha struggled to find himself, the school’s reflection became incorporated into his self-concept:

Subha: I used to even ridicule my own (Pakistani) heritage. I used to make fun of my parents. Just like my friends used to do to me. I went home and it was really bad because my parents couldn’t say anything, like they try to defend it but I kept going on and they just let it go.

Interviewer: Why do you think you did that? Why did that happen?

Subha: I don’t know, I guess I just kept hearing the same thing over and over again from my classmates, maybe it just got drilled into my head, they found little faults and having heard them over and over, this is what I came to see.

In this story of a boy attempting to shape a self-concept on the basis of his social reflection, we realized the extent of the faith children put in the truth of their school experiences. Thus, it seems the power of schools resides in the framework created by the prevailing ideas, norms and practices for boys’ work of identity development, which influences the way different kinds of boys are welcomed and recognized and constitutes, in this manner, a looking glass in which boys see representations of their selves. Such reflections direct the eager and trusting imaginations of boys who must complete their evolving sense of who they are on the basis of what they experience.

A Game of Mother, May I?

Where only some boys made the anxious effort to align themselves with images distorted by historic bias, far more seemed to be aware of the bias they encountered. They seemed to play at identity formation with a careful eye to permissions and prohibitions, openings and threats, much like the child’s game of Mother, May I?, in which opportunities to move forward derive from the arbitrary and unreliable authority of the one who is It. These boys’ identities seemed shaky, the result of a hyper-vigilant probing of opportunities and sanctions on a moment-to-moment basis. The second theme we discovered had to do with the adaptations these boys made, and the anxiety that attended their adaptations, within an opportunity structure that was uncertain, sometimes unfair and often hard for them to access.

Theo, an African American student from one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, observed about his fellow students: ‘‘They’re worried. Rather than being worried about the point they’re trying to make, they’re more worried about how they’re coming off making the point.’’ An unforgiving emphasis on style and public presentation seemed to characterize the social landscape of the school and most of the boys we interviewed had developed a conscious map for traversing its challenges. Theo and his close friend, Malcolm, two African American boys in the lower quartile of the class who had formed a tight identity group to support each other through the athletic challenges, academic rigors and social alienation they experienced in, developed a caustic but mildly affectionate label for the school: ‘‘Malcolm and I call this school BS Prep . . . We have prepared ourselves for all the BS for the rest of our lives. I think we have TIBS to thank for that. I think, without that BS, you are not going to be so successful.’’

Concerned about positioning themselves in the context of the school community, boys carefully observed its norms for style and self-expression. Boys at the top, boys at the bottom, athletic boys, non-athlete; all seemed to be guided in their public actions by this eye to the school audience. Given this particular school’s history as a catalyst for the training of privileged boys (Cookson & Persell, 1985), it was the nontraditional boys we interviewed who were most articulate about the school code. Theo and Malcolm perceived an insincerity among other students, a kind of BS unfamiliar to them. Subha, in another example, described the identity gymnastics, the code-switching, practiced by boys like him as they endeavored to hide some things, pretend to others, for the benefit of the school’s gaze. He explained about himself and other students: ‘‘They talk one way at the school and then they talk a different way at home. Basically, I mean, even the way you talk you gotta change back and forth, your little habits and customs, you change.’’

Code-switching, adapting, pretending, these tactics revealed boys’ acute sensitivity to the positions open to them in their community. Their social fluidity, while quite adaptive, also was quite uncertain, requiring that they be always alert, monitoring and calculating their possibilities. Daniel, a Jewish boy in the predominantly Gentile school and an outstanding student, described himself with considerable pride as ‘‘nonmacho’’ and as a fellow who doesn’t ‘‘have any trouble expressing emotions, or anything, to anybody.’’ Yet despite his evident pride in these qualities, he seemed nervous, almost hypervigilant, in his interview with us. He explained how he had learned to fit himself, emotional style and all, to the school’s mores:

Daniel: You have to be conservative.

Interviewer: ‘‘Guarded,’’ is that what you mean?

Daniel: Not guarded. Just conservative. You don’t have to keep it secret, but you just don’t show it. Do you know what I mean? It’s not like, if I use an analogy, I don’t have to lock it up in a five-guard security prison with iron gates and 486 guard dogs. But, I mean, I can leave it open and they can walk by it. It just can’t jump out at them.

Keeping one’s guard in an environment perceived as dangerous produced its own anxiety.

Buddy, one of the graduates we interviewed, helped us see even more clearly the contradictions and compromises that were part of boys’ public selves. Admitted in ninth grade from a nearby but much less affluent parochial school where he had starred, at a time when the school had just launched a more inclusive outreach policy, Buddy immediately recognized the opportunities the school would afford him:

I knew from the day I visited TIBS when I was in eighth grade, I knew it was different from anything I had ever thought an education could be like. I just thought these kids were so neat. And then, all of a sudden, something backfired for me. I was having this rough time.

His educational upgrade came with a price. Unexpectedly, Buddy encountered a host of limiting stereotypes that attached to boys entering the school as Recruits: ‘‘It was always like an enormous triumph if one of the Recruits was actually doing well in class. It’s like, ‘Wow, that kid is really smart’.’’ Many of the boys who came in with him from nontraditional backgrounds rejected the school or were eventually rejected by it (‘‘I think a lot of people had a tough time . . . fifteen kids, at least, left in those four years. . . . It was a war of attrition’’), but Buddy dug in and determined not to be run out or beaten down, despite hard experiences. He told a story of yelling out the window at a friend, ‘‘and this teacher who was walking by pops his head in and says, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ I said, ‘Nothing, I am just talking to my friend’ and he said, ‘What are you, some Recruit?’’’ Experiences like this and the general disregard he encountered, gave him the impression that he was expected to fail. He recalled the story of a long- time science teacher, who ultimately left the school in a huff, partly in reaction to changes in the student body profile, and who said in a departing speech to make the point, ‘‘You can’t polish a sneaker.’’

But Buddy did adapt, changing his self, polishing his public image. He managed to excel academically, was eventually elected student body president and, finally, received the school’s highest award at graduation. But the battle to establish a secure footing raged till the end. Buddy won public acceptance but even some years after he left the school, clearly did not feel secure in its embrace. He told us how, just before graduation, he realized that highest award might go either to him or to a popular Lifer: ‘‘I just remember that I didn’t know if I was more terrified of winning or losing because I just felt, I didn’t know how much I would deserve it . . . Going into that day was a total nightmare.’’ When the award was announced, Buddy remembered:

I didn’t know what to do . . . I didn’t want to gloat or anything. Mom was like, ‘‘You didn’t even smile!’’ . . . It’s definitely not that I felt like I didn’t deserve the award, but I felt that other people were less enthusiastic . . . I mean, I was ecstatic, I couldn’t believe it. That day went incredibly well for me but I was afraid to show it because I didn’t know how it would be accepted.

Buddy’s story reinforced how schools, often unwittingly, contribute to boys’ social anxiety. He was so conscious of his tenuous social position. Even as he achieved the ultimate TIBS recognition and felt ecstatic within himself, Buddy was afraid to celebrate publicly. Like polishing stones to a desired sheen, the school impressed its expectations for public conformity on boys’ self-awareness. Boys, however anxiously, fit themselves to these patterns in their best efforts to achieve some measure of certainty.

Invisible Selves

Very few of the nontraditional boys we interviewed had confidence that they could play the game and fit themselves through the barriers and gateways to the school’s richer rewards as successfully as Buddy had. More commonly, boys felt unsettled and unhappy, wanting entry but feeling hopeless about ever gaining it. We happened to interview Peter, son of an African American judge from a nearby suburb and a student in the middle of the class academically, on the day he had been passed over for end of the year awards. He spoke about his and his friends’ missing out during such award ceremonies: ‘‘They’re not the expected people . . . they don’t fit the mold. The mold’s already been made and the mold was made so long ago that those people were never here so they would never be figured into the mold.’’

Peter exemplified the third theme discovered in our qualitative analysis: boys whose social anxiety had less to do with distortion or uncertainty and more to do with rewards dangled but withheld; the tension of wanting but never receiving recognition. These boys, excluded from the school’s recognitional practices, came to feel that gaining the school’s attention simply depended on accidents of social circumstances, with ‘‘being the right people.’’ They felt that the school had a mold that boys either fit or not, a mold set by history, practice and birth. Thus, many of the boys from backgrounds newer to the school, united in their common longing and sense of personal rejection, saw it more as a game (e.g., ‘‘BS Prep’’) and were willing to do whatever they had to do to win. Their anxiety, arising from their relative deprivation, expressed their sense of incompletion and their ceaseless effort to achieve social validation in the school’s looking glass.

We saw signs of this anxiety in boys’ efforts with their peers. Though the school’s admissions policy changes had resulted in the entry of many new groups of students, admission to the classrooms and locker rooms clearly did not offer broad access to the school’s social life. Luke, a soccer player from another of the nearby White, Catholic, working-class towns and a bottom quadrant student, described how he and his friends had been left out of the parties, camaraderie and welcome offered other boys: ‘‘It was just understood pretty much . . . I don’t know, there were four or five of us that. . . we always just stayed together all the time . . . not because we didn’t want to associate with other people but . . . I never ever felt like a real part of my class.’’

Boys from these newer backgrounds consistently described being socially marginalized, ignored and even ghettoized. Gordon is a wonderfully alive, biracial young man who graduated in the top quartile of his class. We interviewed him while he was attending a prestigious New England college and he still felt this way:

I’ll tell you what I didn’t like: that there were some groups I couldn’t be part of there. They also seemed to be the most popular people . . . I wasn’t a part, I didn’t try and make myself a part of these groups, it doesn’t work that way, it just happens and it never happened for me.

Many boys from poor, working-class, and non-WASP backgrounds had not been able to surmount the obstacles to the kind of confidence-building and uplifting social embrace the school offers to better-positioned boys. They had adapted to their exclusion and invisibility with keen awareness of when they could play, how far they could encroach, when the school would react to style or family with a cold shoulder or worse. For example, when asked about his involvement with the social life of the school, Jason sounded a common refrain: ‘‘At TIBS? I wouldn’t know. I am not even a part of it.’’ Gordon amplified this note:

I was never part of their groups. It was the automatic assumption that I wasn’t like them. . . . They were all from [the wealthy suburbs], most of them were Lifers, and I wasn’t or even if I were, I don’t look like I would be and I probably didn’t act like I would be either.

Even boys who hung out with boys from the center during the course of the week found themselves ignored on weekends. When we asked Luke, a leader on the soccer team, about his contacts with his teammates off the field said, ‘‘They don’t want us around. They want us around when we are teammates and stuff, but for the most part, like, if people went to, say, a party, I tell you they wouldn’t call any of us.’’

A student body that did not share off-campus experiences generally did not manage to reach across these separations on campus, either. The relations of center and periphery that characterized the social geography of the school carried over into other opportunities for inclusion and recognition. Most boys we spoke with, for example, felt that the notions of ‘‘what you would want a TIBS guy to be like’’ carried into classrooms and relations among teachers and students. Several of the boys we spoke to, like Theo, Peter and Malcolm, all African American from the city, and Buddy, a working class Caucasian boy from the suburbs, felt themselves excluded in the academic realm as well as the social. Theo, who struggled with relatively weak academic skills developed during 8 years in the city’s public school system, spoke at some length about the school’s difficulty seeing him, off the basketball court, as a student:

It’s like . . . they can’t understand or they can’t relate to that new thing that is coming in, do you know what I mean? They see that, ‘‘Oh, he’s the star of the basketball team. . . . He’s got a full scholarship to Drexel.’’ They don’t see . . . ‘‘He is really reflective and he really enjoys English, even though he gets C1’s on papers, he still enjoys it.’’ I don’t think they see that far. They see basketball. I am stereotyped. It’s like, ‘‘I don’t like you because you’re not a Lifer or you haven’t been brought up the way I have been brought up.’’

Not being seen despite efforts to win a deserving recognition brought its own unsettledness, its own anxiety. Faced with the rigid expectations of others in the school about their ‘‘rightful’’ place in the world and perceiving insurmountable barriers to being seen and included, these boys seemed to be confronting the profound uncertainty of exclusion, of how they could manage to fulfill themselves under circumstances of being systematically left out. This struggle compounded anxiety caused by managing distorted reflections and trying to assimilate through constant monitoring of their public selves because it reached to the heart of boys’ social selves.


In this study we explored conditions of boys’ self-development and questions about their freedom to grow and to achieve. Our quantitative findings show that at TIBS there was a strong, inverse relationship between self-concept and social anxiety. Our qualitative findings amplified these results, suggesting that, all else being equal, these boys developed their self- concepts based in part on how they saw themselves reflected in the mirror of the school’s social relations. Boys’ worries about their belonging within these relations, at least for those in our sample, had real foundation in their daily experience and real consequences for their healthy development. Thus, while these results certainly validated the well-established finding that boys who feel better about themselves tend to do better academically, at a deeper level they validated a concern for the vulnerability of boys’ self- concepts to the distortions, pressures and bias of their school’s looking glasses. Boys’ hands in their self-development were discernible in the choices they made, but shaping their choices of identities and social positions to fit what was offered in the looking glass of school relations clearly limited them in significant ways and suggests the critical role school masculinity curricula may play in boys’ development.

In TIBS’s organizational attempts to forge boys’ identities, key processes were illustrated that boys may often encounter in institutions designed for their benefit. These processes constitute what key theorists in boys’ development call a tacit, common curriculum for man-making; one which has been implicated in the formation of a particular kind of masculinity described as dominant or ‘‘hegemonic’’ (Connell, 1989, 1995; Mac An Ghaill, 1994; Manegold, 2000; Martino, 1999). This formation process historically has involved a high degree of uncertainty and social anxiety, of hierarchy, peer harassment and exclusion, which become normative conditions for boys’ lives.

In their elaboration of Becker’s theories (1971, 1973) about the existential importance of meaningfulness for human motivation, Pyszcznski, Greenberg, and Goldenberg (2003) argue that the need for a positive sense of self is rooted in a fundamental need to be seen as valuable and worthwhile. From the perspective of their terror management theory (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986), by which a developing self desperately battles for validation, we can appreciate that boys who find themselves in schools where resources of recognition and validation are arbitrarily and unfairly distributed may experience a range of anxiety reactions. They must construct a sense of self from the biased and distorted appraisals of them in the school’s looking glass. This was certainly true at TIBS.

With opportunities for a positive self-conception so limited, some boys’ situations seem likely to produce the sort of reaction which ‘‘arises when a person wants to make a particular, desired impression but fears that he or she will fail to do so’’ (Gilbert, Fiske, & Lindzey, 1998, p. 711), a definition of the clinical condition termed social anxiety. In this study, we were less concerned with the diagnosis of clinical levels of anxiety than we were in the implication of these levels in the processes through which boys’ form self- concepts. Those boys who contended with exclusion, stereotype or discrimination clearly felt ‘‘that negative evaluation is a possible or even likely outcome, and that consequences of such negative evaluation would be harmful’’ (Leitenberg, 1990, p. 1). As they worked their school context for its resources of personal validation, their equanimity seemed compromised by a high degree of social insecurity.

Happily, the three main themes which emerged from our interview data, though limited by their elite school context and the exploratory nature of the study’s design, do suggest strategies schools may consider to reflect more accurate and inclusive images back to their boys and, more broadly, ways in which they may experiment with becoming more generous sites of security and possibility for all boys.


We are not arguing for schools to eliminate the ‘‘drills’’ that often lie at the heart of their recognitional practices (Cookson & Persell, 1985; Kuriloff & Reichert, 2003). Instead, we are suggesting challenging what Fine (1991) called ‘‘fetishistic’’ protections against examining the impact of school norms and practices on students’ lives. Strongly held taboos restricting open discussion of schools’ hidden curricula and patterns of reward and recognition can be acknowledged for what they are─ and what they are in the service of. For too many boys like Subha, the imperative to square themselves with the looking glass biases of their schools, without under- standing their basis in history, can produce states of anxiety and social insecurity which interfere with an ability to focus, to care and to sustain effort (MacLeod, 1990; Willis, 1977). But neither does it help boys of the center who, because they too are oblivious to the implicit history and norms of the school, are too often both ignorant of their implication in the system and unnecessarily insensitive to the plight of marginalized peers. Such ignorance can prevent authentic friendship from developing and limits many of the advantages of an otherwise carefully constructed diversity.

Boys can be expected to engage with the recognitional relations available to them in their schools, families and communities. Negotiating such relational landscapes is the work of childhood. But schools can assist boys in this passage, accompanying them to develop an understanding of their school’s masculinity drill. Unnamed, unassisted, the process can leave boys frightened and alone. The curriculum can include not just hard, substantive learning, taught to high standards. It also can invite reflections on itself, as well as reading about the historical roots and social implications of its drills (Baltzell, 1989; Delpit, 1995; Gathorne-Hardy, 1978; Peshkin, 2001).

So long as the recognitional patterns in schools are invisible, indeed protected from open discourse by practices of avoidance and punishment, boys can feel that they are immutable. If we want more from boys than that they harness up or fit themselves to the frightening, unfair and exclusionary social practices of their schools, if we want thinkers, boys charged to learn, able to appreciate the necessity that they engage their full selves in learning, monitoring, regulating and motivating themselves, then schools need to be forthright about the historical imperative in their missions. They need to help students learn about the ways they, as organizations, are inhabited by discoverable (and often very narrow), ideals and images. Subha realized how limited other TIBS’s students’ worldviews were only when he saw himself in a new looking glass; one offered by a school culture which was much more diverse and sophisticated about race and difference. He then turned this new understanding back to the school, trying to help it fashion a new, more inclusive, vision. His understanding converted almost immediately into action to reform school life and his paralyzing self-doubt and worry into empowered, impassioned self-assertion.


Schools, beyond inviting boys to excavate the specifics of how well they recognize different group of students, can help boys develop a meta-view of their systems of rewards and entitlements, their distribution of opportunities and welcome. As we discovered in our conversations with boys at TIBS, many boys can see that there is a game to be played at school. It is a game that requires presentation of self and a tireless effort to reach for openings, rewards and recognition that are seldom distributed solely on the basis of merit, however well a school rationalizes its recognitional pattern. What we suggest is that schools not only help boys notice these biases, but that they invite them to invent better ways. Parallel to the expert learning, which characterizes high achievers (Ertmer & Newby, 1996), the capacity to notice the big picture while engaged in a particular task to gauge progress─ metacognition─ has social as well as scholastic implications (Nelson, 1996). In our study, boys who managed to shuttle between the micro world of their immediate situation (biography, class, culture)─ to see things small, as Greene (1995) puts it─ and the macro perspective of the school’s culture and practice were most successful in forging more secure self-concepts. Viewing themselves big, these learners were able to see ‘‘from the point of view of the participant in the midst of what is happening’’ (p. 10). They discovered that their social adaptations happened best when they were able to keep an eye on themselves-in-relation to the immediate social challenge; to the teachers, to their peers. Far from taking the school’s culture as given, accepting their place in a predestined scheme of things, they had somehow learned to view the social world of their schooling as in flux, subject to their agency. They had learned how to think independently about themselves and to rely upon their minds and their imaginations to push forward the bounds of possibility. This discovery is what Greene (1995) characterizes as ‘‘releasing the imagination’’: ‘‘Thinking about our thinking, imagining things for ourselves, seeking a community of concern in a public space’’ (p. 303) and it lay at the heart of the boys’ meta-learning.

Theo and Malcolm, for example, developed a meta-understanding of their school culture, which they called affectionately, if ironically, ‘‘BS Prep’’: ‘‘I think, without that BS, you are not going to be successful.’’ Both boys noticed the alien nature of this style to backgrounds and cultures like theirs, just as they observed the advantages ‘‘lifers’’ had in internalizing it. Like Buddy, they came to appreciate its possibilities, successfully adapting rather than failing, running afoul of the system or otherwise dropping out: ‘‘We have prepared ourselves for all of the BS for the rest of our lives.’’ These boys had not assimilated in quite the same way Subha had; they had not internalized the negative attributions about class or race reflected to them in the looking glass of TIBS’s life, and had not experienced the same quality of social anxiety. They maintained, in fact, a critical perspective on the social reality of school life even while they extracted what could be learned from it.

Though they chose to play within the TIBS rules, Buddy, Theo and Malcolm were never easy, submissive or merely compliant. Their power to see the boundedness of the school’s offers made their fit an edgy one, with Malcolm battling rage, Buddy cynicism and Theo discouragement and outright rejection. Yet the very nature of their critical capacities made for a healthy tension between what they wanted and what was offered, between the given and the imagined.

Such struggle defines schools engaged in postmodern pedagogy. Indeed, a sense of struggle is welcome, the sign of imagination at play. For Giroux (1997), ‘‘insurgent multiculturalism’’ is about ‘‘sites of struggle’’ that are ‘‘open, fluid’’ and in which knowledge, practice and reality are contested by boys able to voice the perspectives of their different experiences (p. 235). Mann (1994) suggests a similar image when she recommends a ‘‘sports metaphor’’ to capture the ‘‘lived and bruising quality’’ of the conflicts necessary if institutions are to be transformed by the critical imaginations of individuals determined to be recognized and included (p. 161).


The relation between a school’s social center and its periphery also seems critically important for its impact on boys’ well being. As we learned from our informants, day to day school practice, in its rituals, rewards, policies and habits, reinforced the domination of a particular cultural class and style. Access to the benefits of appreciation and social recognition was tightly controlled by a rigid, invisible practice.

In a school culture where the monopoly on public life enjoyed by the privileged is unchallenged, deviation from the norms and values of the center comes to be regarded as deficiency. Some of the boys we interviewed were able to form subcultures that buttressed their sense of value. Others, more isolated, internalized the definitions offered by the center. Subha was one of a number of boys who distanced themselves from qualities of biography and identity that the culture of the school denigrated. In his case, it was his family’s Pakistani heritage; in another boy’s, his mother’s race; in yet others, the family income. The looking glass of school culture offered no images that validated these aspects of boys’ personal experiences. Boys saw their reflection there and made meaning of what they saw: some saw bias and exclusion, some deficit, some difference.

Can such boys do without attention and recognition? We suspect not. The compromises Subha or Buddy made to fit in or to win were compelled by their fundamental dependency on the school social life to validate and recognize, to complete, their senses of self. In other words, because their access to alternative social worlds was limited by their dependent state and their inherent trust, some of the nontraditional boys we spoke with kept trying despite their exclusion from most of the school’s rewards. Angling, dodging, aspiring, denying, trying again, these boys anxiously sought the completion of their identities in the looking glass reflection of the only social worlds they inhabited.

In their work on fostering schools as communities of difference, Fine, Weis, and Powell (1997) recommend a pedagogy that de-centers privileged identities and offers recognition to the silenced, excluded and overlooked. Seeing their identities reflected in the school’s curriculum─ in a world literature class, for example─ students discovered a voice and new self-confidence. Predictably, there were efforts to re-center by boys accustomed to dominating classroom airtime. Resistance seems a reasonable response from boys who feel they may be called upon to give up some privilege. And why, after all, should a school like TIBS, founded for the sake of upper class boys, change practices that privilege these very same privileged boys? One obvious answer is that it is only by interrogating such social practices that students will begin to actually take advantage of the diversity such schools now so laboriously cultivate. In Fine, Weis, and Powell’s communities of difference, skillful teachers helped even the privileged boys discover a bigger picture of themselves and their place in the world. This approach, though very challenging, provides an alternative to an emphasis on diversity that means merely extending the offer of elite education to children of color and class; nothing else about the schools changes, the center remains undisturbed even as numbers of new identities are added to its margins, blurring all together as the ‘‘other’’ by which the center affirms itself.

Practices of social separation and self-definition by negation have particular relevance for boys’ education. Before they ever arrive at school most boys absorb an abundance of messages that they are the ‘‘standard’’ to girls’ ‘‘difference.’’ The masculine identities that result are both fragile and vulnerable to disruption, as girls increasingly demonstrate competitive competence. We can appreciate, as Manegold (2000) documented in her history of The Citadel, that race or class or sexuality or religion can be interchanged with gender and offer privileged yet vulnerable males more opportunities to assert their claim to centrality. Yet when this social practice dominates the life of a school community it produces toxic effects for everyone. ‘‘Othered’’ boys may not be content to live quietly at the margins. As more schools confront this, there seems to be greater incentive to take on the work of creating more democratic social practices in schools.

How to do this? For starters, schools could help their students map their social relations. At one school it took an ugly incident between Lifers and Recruits, not to mention an uncommonly courageous Head of School, before the school undertook to listen systematically to groups of students describe their experience of school life (Reichert, 2000). This incident and the resultant study confirmed that sheer numbers alone do not make for a diverse and democratic community. So long as a center is enshrined in the history, practice and policy of the school, there will be a host of pressures brought to bear on students newer to the community to assimilate by erasing or despising those aspects of family, biography or identity that do not meet the community’s traditional standards.

Additionally, schools can conceive of their public spaces in new ways. For one school, this might mean facilitating the creation of a new Parents Association, genuinely welcoming and inviting to African American and working class parents, taking advantage of this central meeting place of school life to bring parents together and help them define a common purpose. For another, where the key spaces are dominated by particular groups of students─ a practice which can often devolve into overt exclusion and worse─ schools can reengineer their space by configuring new, desirable alternatives, breaking up the monopoly historically enjoyed by the center. While it will take bold leadership to move schools in this direction, the alternative appears undesirable as well as less and less viable in our increasingly complex and multicultural society.

We wish to thank the Head, Assistant Head, faculty and students of The Independent Boys School for their support of this research. We appreciate the feedback we received from Professors Michelle Fine and Michael Kimmel. Finally, we are especially grateful to our research assistants who each helped us significantly at different stages of this work: to our statistician, Ms. Lauren Scher, who not only ran our data but made a major contribution to our thinking about the constituents of self-concepts in boys; to Ms. Emily Greytak for her excellent editorial assistance in preparing our manuscript; and to Robert Zeitlin, Psy.D. who was instrumental in all of the early stages of this study. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Michael Reichert, The Center for the Study of Boys’ Lives, 450 Lancaster Ave., Haverford, Pennsylvania, 19041.


1 To protect informants’ anonymity, pseudonyms have been used throughout report.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 3, 2004, p. 544-573
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11527, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 10:43:12 PM

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About the Author
  • Michael Reichert
    Center for the Study of Boys' Lives
    E-mail Author
    MICHAEL REICHERT is a clinical and consulting psychologist who serves as executive director for the Center for the Study of Boys’ Lives and project director for Peaceful Posse, a youth violence initiative sponsored by Philadelphia Physicians for Social Responsibility. Recent publications include chapters in Fine and Weis (2000) Construction Sites (‘‘Disturbances of Difference’’) and Martino and Meyenn (2001) What About the Boys? (‘‘Rethinking Boys’ Lives’’).
  • Peter Kuriloff
    University of Pennsylvania
    E-mail Author
    PETER KURILOFF is a counseling psychologist and a professor in the Educational Leadership Division of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. He is research director of the Center for the Study of Boys’ Lives. Recent publications include (with McGrath) ‘‘Knocking the Girls off the Basketball Court,’’ School Community Journal, Fall/Winter 1999, as well as (with Reichert) ‘‘Boys of Class, Boys of Color,’’ Journal of Social Issues, 59(4), 2003.
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