Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Where the Girls Are

Are universities still "where the boys are"? Less so than ever it seems.

According to Professor Mark J. Perry, using data from the US Department of Education: "Women dominate men at every level of higher education, in terms of degrees conferred." The percentage level of males to females overall in universities seems to be about 60/40, and in general, the percentage of women entering universities seems to be increasing, while that of men entering universities seems to be decreasing. "Of the more than 3 million college degrees for the Class of 2009, women will earn close to 60% of those degrees (1,849,200), or almost 149 degrees for every 100 degrees earned by men."

I've now been working at a giant state university for five years, and I've seen basically the same student body composition. In general, there seem to be more girls coming in, and less of them dropping out. I'm not keen on speculating about why this is the case. I've heard a lot of people speculate about this and often their speculations are pretty fucking stupid, as you'll note reading through the comments on Perry's post. So, it seems to me that the subject might just work against intelligent commentary.

However... I would like to analyze the explanation I've heard most often: that schooling is now, institutionally, anti-male. The argument goes that boys are, by nature, more hyperactive, fidgety, disruptive, or even rude. Instead of letting them be themselves, schools try to "feminize" boys by forcing them to behave in specific ways: making them be quiet, not allowing them to talk out of turn, requiring them to be polite, and so forth, that are simply unnatural. And, by trying to force them to conform, they alienate these boys, who then drop out. This is all, incidentally, taken to be a new development, and is often tied to "therapeutic education" or "liberalism" in some sense.

It's actually a very Rousseaunean argument. If you read Rousseau's Emile, you'll find that he agreed that education should basically consist of allowing the student to follow his natural gifts and doing as little as possible to discipline him. He focused, incidentally, only on male education here. But, the liberal argument that discipline warps us instead of elevating us begins with Rousseau. Also the idea that it's better to be natural than unnatural.

So, indeed, by the time you get to the 1960s, you hear a sort of knee-jerk anti-authority argument in which teachers, judges, cops, doctors, et cetera are simply people who exercise power over others to maintain the establishment, and therefore all critiques of those figures are somehow valid. The kid who mouths off to their teacher is simply, "speaking truth to power". I'd suggest that this argument, which derives from Rousseau, is one that more of us would be familiar with.

While boys like Jerry Rubin or the beat writers did sometimes seem to see themselves as being akin to the Marx brothers hassling poor Margaret Dumont, I don't remember the argument being so gender-specific. The current argument seems to be that the system forces boys, and not girls, to conform to a standard that is uniquely "unnatural" for them. So, is the suggestion that young men should be allowed or encouraged to speak male truth to feminine power? Or that schools should back off when boys are behaving in whatever way feels natural to them? It implies a very 60s liberal sort of argument with a mildly conservative slant. We can save the males by rejecting authority.

I went to high school back in the 80s, so maybe this supposed feminization had already occurred; but it's hard for me to imagine the golden age in which young boys were allowed, or even encouraged to mouth off to their teachers or run around yelling. It seems to me that education has never been much like Rousseau's dream and has always been something of a "conformity factory", as Homer Simpson once put it. And, frankly, I've seen the level of discipline in educational settings drop off dramatically in the last two decades. (And one might ask if there are now more boys who are lacking any male adult role models in their lives than there were a few decades ago.)

I can see the argument that schooling might have once been more competitive than it is now; but it's still very competitive, and besides girls are both competing and coming out on top as it is now. So, I can't see how more competition would change that. Couldn't it also be the case that girls feel more comfortable competing with the boys than they used to?

Again, though, I don't know what's changed. I will say, however, that I don't remember ever in my life hearing as many people as I've heard in the last decade claiming that men are, by nature, less academic or cerebral, less given to thoughtfulness or quiet reflection, and less polite and civilized than women are. I don't just hear this in the "schools hate men" argument; I also hear it in movies and commercials, conversations, books and editorials; and usually said with a patronizing shrug, "Aw, you know how guys are!" (Loud & dumb.)

It's also bullshit. I know quite a few young men, and they constantly amaze me with how varied they are- they contain multitudes undreamed of in your philosophy. But, I have to say that a surprising number of them I know are unhappy, and it never seems to be because they're less kind or intelligent or quiet than society expects them to be; usually, quite the opposite. Moreover, none of them I know seem to be lacking in people telling them how "guys" are "naturally" supposed to behave, or not behave.

So, maybe it's not just the teachers that need to just let them be.

Update: What you'd expect, given that now more college graduates are women, would be for the pay gap to start closing. And, indeed, young women in their 20s seem now to be making more than their male counterparts in the major US cities.


narrator said...

I'm often confused by the same issues/histories. But I know this, when I went to high school, a bit before Rufus, perhaps as many as a third of boys were in fully vocational programs. Maybe 10% of girls were. The school's "College Prep" zone had already been feminized. But in that college prep zone, many fewer females than males went on to four-year colleges/universities. In fact, more than a few girls from the college prep program married the "shop" guys, creating white collar/blue collar households which seemed very common at the time.

That said, I don't think school was ever a "typical boy zone." School above the US 8th grade is a very new phenomenon. School was designed for the "studious 25%" of males who went to secondary school before WWII. In the 1950s, as secondary - and then tertiary - education expanded to a much wider population, the model remained pretty much the same. This model inevitably fit the needs of more girls who had previously not done academics beyond age 14 than boys who had not. The more school has become required, the more it has become 'academic' for all, the more the field has tilted toward females.

Just thinking out loud, of course.


rufus said...

It does seem possible that girls are more driven than ever before because they're more encouraged than ever before. I hear people talk about the intense social pressure that girls once felt to downplay their intelligence or not to compete with the boys in that regard. It still exists, of course- I've had a few female students who turned in brilliant essays and exams while acting like airheads in class. But, I suspect that the pressure is not so widespread or intense as it once was.

And then I suspect that there is fairly intense pressure on boys to downplay their intelligence. I've had students come up to me before and say things like, "I know this might sound queer, but I actually liked that classical music you were playing in class- what was that?" I hear from them often that they're under intense pressure to measure up as men, with that role very narrowly defined. I don't know that teachers can really get past social pressure, although they do try.

And then there's the fact that not everyone needs higher ed. You've suggested that this could be part of it, and indeed there are still plenty of boys like Claire's brother who went on to brilliant careers in fields like engineering without getting a four-year degree. Stranger things have happened.

Anonymous said...

I think you are missing the point about schools being institutionally anti-male, at least for very young boys. The academic expectations for young children have significantly increased--now kindergartners are expected to learn to read and to write legibly. The amount of homework expected of elementary school children has also increased. On average girls are more ready for this, both in ability to focus and also the fine motor skills needed for legible writing. Girls start out ahead and stay that way.

narrator said...

Anonymous has a point,young boys develop at rate more in tune with Scandinavian schooling (starting at age 7) than what US education has become (academics at age 4). This leaves boys far behind by third grade. They already hate school, they already hate reading at age 8. In the grade-by-grade format of education, once you are behind, it is virtually impossible to "catch up."

And there we are.

- Ira Socol

Rufus said...

First off, thanks for the interesting and good points.

Okay, I was in kindergarten in the late 1970s, and admittedly, I have no idea about kindergarten homework rates these days. But, does this really strike you as "institutionally anti-male"? I mean, if they take a one-size-fits-all approach, and there's reason to believe that very young boys learn at a different rate than very young girls, then okay, they should definitely change the way they teach kindergarten. But
wouldn't that just suggest their teaching isn't keeping up with the research? And would this really explain why teenage boys aren't going on to college?

And what's the answer? Should they drop kindergarten and elementary school homework, or lessen it? Or should they do more to get boys used to doing homework? Isn't homework an area where parents have the responsibility anyway? And it's still hard for me to imagine this teenage boy who would have gone on to college if he hadn't had so much homework in grade school.

Also, a lot of this is strange for me because I learned to read about the same time I learned to talk and to write by about 3 or 4. I have to take everyone's word here about very young boys not being good readers. I was a big reader. I would have liked more homework. What I hated about High School was that the teachers didn't challenge us, not that they asked too much. Schooling is impersonal, and I suspect that for a lot of kids, their experience with parenting is impersonal as well! I remember really beginning to hate education during High School. And, again, I don't remember elementary school having any bearing on it by that point.

So, I try to think of what might have helped me, as a boy, not to have hated High School. Because, you know, I didn't go on to college until about eight years later, mostly due to hating High School. Again, I definitely remember it being too easy and impersonal.

But, honestly, what would have helped the most would have been for my parents to get their shit together and either divorce earlier or stop fighting and stay together. What bothers me is that when we talk about why kids do poorly in school, it's always about the "institution" and never about anything to do with their lives outside of school.

To be honest, what shocks me about the young boys in the very blue collar town where I live is that they seemingly have no parental involvement whatsoever in their lives, and more importantly, no men guiding them. They either have no father, hate their stepfather, have a dad who is just too young and childish, or have parents who just don't care about them. America currently has the highest divorce rate in the world, and the highest rate in history. We've sort of gotten used to that, but kids don't get used to it- trust me. Honestly, I don't remember at all back in the 1970s and 1980s seeing so many young men without fathers, and seemingly without anyone parenting them in any sense. So, in comparison, the effect of too much homework seems a bit like small beer to me.

Again, I'm not an elementary school teacher or educational researcher, but isn't parental involvement the major factor in how kids do in school? Why do we so often treat it as irrelevant?