Friday, June 05, 2009


I should make a correction to that post about men and women in higher education. If you look at the data provided by the Dept. of Education, the percentage of men relative to that of women in higher ed is dropping, like I said- using Professor Perry's chart. However, looking at the numbers here, what you see is that the numbers of men receiving degrees is still growing, albeit at a much slower rate, and not shrinking. Maybe we could honestly call it stagnating, but not "less men than ever", as I had said. So, it's not really a matter of young men abandoning university education as much as young women really taking to higher ed. The young men are just getting left behind.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Mark Penn actually calls them GLBs, or "Guys Left Behind". He cites a researcher who suggests that men are falling behind because of how they "evolved over thousands of years and now face "biological and societal" hazards that make them more vulnerable now." From the caves to WWII, "it worked for men to take big risks, have short attention spans and be driven by ego," and now it doesn't. He also cites employers who find that "guys" can't listen, are too fidgety, and are more likely to flake off than women.

I will refrain from picking this argument apart. But, I will say that this researcher, and Penn, demonstrate here an almost total lack of historical knowledge. In a society that has completely lost the historical sense, perhaps these sorts of evolutionary/biological explanations- However people are now is the way they've been for all of recorded time, by their very nature- will become very popular. Historians sometimes claim that people in the Middle Ages had so little knowledge of history that they most likely lived in an "eternal present". I think we've returned to that eternal present.


narrator said...

Well, the historical frame of how (and why) education is delivered has become my thing, so Mark Penn - who seems to know very little - aside, I need to comment on this and your last comment on the previous post re: parenting.

First, of course parenting matters. Socio-economics - which typically determines parenting - is the number one predictor of school success or failure. Second, homework below high school is nothing more than an evaluation of middle class status of the student's parents. It has no purpose other than to ensure that poor children will fail. Third, yes, kindergarten and first grade have changed radically since you were in school. They have become fully abusive environments designed to oppose all natural childhood learning and curiousity. (I know, used ""natural" again)

I don't know genetics. But I do suspect that there are evolutionary reasons why "hyperactivity" might be far more common in males than females. I do suspect that there might be evolutionary reasons why multi-tasking can look very different in males and female. I do suspect that there might be evolutionary reasons why females might be more content in quiet rooms than males.

Does this mean any of this is universal? of course not. Just as the apparent "fact" (statistic) that the majority of sub 8-year-old boys struggle with reading hardly denies your experience. (Now, as someone wh truly learned to read post age 16, I'm an outlier as well.) But it does suggest, as I said on the earlier post, that the combination of increased universalization of education and the increased academization of education, may have created problems for boys that we did not see before.

Because, yes, how a child does in first and second grade does appear to determine their future re: higher education. Because of age-based grade systems, once a student falls behind, it has become almost impossible to catch up. And the majority of boys are "behind" by the time they get to 3rd grade.

Can we compare all this historically? Not really. Age-based grades are a relatively new thing (1830s - Prussia). And universal secondary education is not quite 60 years old, and universal academic secondary education is just finishing its second decade. Female access to education is also relatively new. We have little long-term data.

Just hunches.

- Ira Socol

Rufus said...

Okay, I agree that socio-economics is the number one predictor of school success or failure. But what is the incentive for teachers to ensure that poor children fail? And why in the world would teachers design an environment to oppose all natural curiosity? And what is a 'fully abusive environment' anyway? Lastly, why do girls thrive in that sort of environment?

I'll accept that elementary school sounds like a mess. We have a friend who teaches kindergarten and I've heard her talk about things that are certainly new to me, like homework and sending "learning evaluations" to the parents. And I can certainly agree that it sounds stupid and misguided. But, what is the incentive for all of this? What's driving it, if not the parents? I can't imagine that the state would aim at leaving boys behind, or that parents would push for a more rigid and abusive environment. I can believe that things are the way you say they are, but why?

The best I can guess, having not studied how education is delivered, is that it's entirely too standardized. It sounds as if a poor student simply has to be taught in a different way than a rich kid because of everything that happens outside of the classroom. And, what it sounds like you're saying is that a boy simply has to be taught in a different way than a girl. What this suggests is a complete overhaul of the entire system- doing away with classes bigger than four or five children and doing away with the "year" system entirely. I'm fine with that, but again, none of this happens in a bubble. If you want to change how a child is "educated", you need to change their entire life, inside and outside of the classroom. And I worry that people are hoping for public schools to do everything, basically raising the children.

As for genetics, my point isn't that young boys aren't hyperactive. And I suppose they should be taught in different ways, or taught in single-sex classrooms, if that's what they need.

What bothers me though is this tendency people have, when writing about the subject, to talk about habits as characteristics. You have to learn to pay attention, or sit still, or focus on a task for long periods of time. These things aren't unconscious abilities that we're born with. Maybe they come easier to girls at a younger age, but that's no reason to suggest- as I think Mark Penn does- that "guys" just aren't cut out for office work. Because the fact that a 5-year old boy isn't content in a quiet room should not mean that a 30 year old man can't work in a quiet office space.

What I worry is that we're going to throw up our hands and decide that males simply can't do certain things that are useful skills in an information economy, so it's understandable that they would be left behind. Because it wasn't that long ago that western societies described women as being naturally flighty, scatterbrained, shallow, and unable to think very deeply; and I'm not sure that simply shifting those stereotypes to "guys" does anyone any good. I realize that you're not doing that, but it seems that quite a few people are.

Rufus said...

As for the historical comparison, I was suggesting that the history of adult male work is much more varied than Penn admits. People have done all sorts of things, depending on the economy they found themselves living in- from hunting to fishing to farming to hanging about the agora while the slaves worked to fighting wars to working in factories to working in offices- the point is that, when economies change, people adapt. States might collapse, but people adjust to the changes, usually within a generation. And, indeed, whatever they adjust to comes to seem 'natural' to them. It's entirely possible that the decline of manufacturing and the rise of an "information economy" will take some people longer to adjust to than others, and maybe it will be harder for me, but I don't believe that evolution has doomed anyone to irrelevance. And I suspect that men will catch up.

Rufus said...

That "harder for me" was supposed to read "harder for men". But it is funnier that way.

narrator said...

I have this basic theory that the system is designed to promote a certain level of failure. A capitalist system requires that. Without an underclass as a cautionary tale their is nothing to motivate the middle class. I do not think teachers make these decisions, but I think "society" allows it to be made by accepting myths - the bell curve, the value of competition, the notion of "normal" development, and of course, by insisting on a certain specific standard for what a "good student" looks like.

The question then becomes, who gets chosen for failure?

We can understand why poor people are chosen to fail - education is a system of social reproduction. But why boys?

I think this is an unconscious choice, that is the result of earlier economic decisions. US teaching became "feminized" after the Civil War in order to avoid paying male salaries. This had limited effect until the age-based grade became widespread, because younger boys had older boys for role models. Even through the 1960s this was mediated by large families and crowded cities and early suburbs, where older kids were the primary daily caretakers of younger kids. But starting in the 1970s that societal training structure collapsed, and boys were left with only female teachers to set their agenda. When, beginning in the Reagan era, schools "returned" to a faux notion of "the 3Rs" I think one of those perfect storms we hear so much happened. The brutalness of "grade-level expectations" were joined to "zero tolerance" and a feminized schoolhouse, to radically raise the percentage of boys now marked for failure. At the same time, the liberation of girls' aspirations allowed them to expect more, and allowed teachers to treat those girls with more respect.

And thus I think we end up where we are.

To change this we need to completely alter our 1840s vision of what education looks like. We need multi-age classrooms, classrooms with different furniture and architecture, different school schedules, different teacher training, and different assessments
but more than anything, we need to abandon our belief in capitalism as a component of education
If education is a capitalist enterprise, we require failure.

- Ira Socol