Monday, March 29, 2010

Where the Boyz Are

Nicholas Kristoff's recent piece in the New York Times discusses the gender gap in education: boys and men doing worse than girls and women. I have written about this topic many, many times in the past, largely to point out several aspects of the problem which have been ignored in the U.S. discussion. These omissions reduce the clarity of the debate.

The first of these is that the gender gap is not something specifically American or even specifically Western. In Iran, for example, about 60% of university students are female.

What this means is that the lower reading scores of boys in the United States are not because of the Evil Feminists and how they have changed schools in the recent decades. That a country such as Iran, with explicit policies discriminating against girls and women, has a greater gender gap than the U.S. (where everybody knows feminazis rule) refutes the anti-feminist argument. Whatever causes boys to do worse in some areas of education is pretty universal and thus cannot be linked to feminism.

A second important point that is always ignored has to do with the most important reason why anybody goes to college. This is the ability of a college education to raise a person's future earnings, compared to what is available without it.

And it is in the average earnings of men and women with just a high school degree that we find a large difference: Even today, after years of outsourcing, many traditionally male occupations (electricians, police officers and plumbers, say) offer a pretty good salary, and one which can be obtained without spending an additional four years at school after high school graduation. Remember that going to college costs both money and time. If you can find an OK job without going, you are more likely to do just that.

The traditionally female occupations (retail and clerical jobs, say) based on only high school education pay nowhere near as much, on average. Indeed, a woman may have to get a college degree to reach comparable levels of earnings as the blue-collar occupations I mentioned.

In the U.S. the military offers another occupational avenue for men in the college-going age groups. Though women are of course entitled to enter those better-paying blue-collar occupations and the military, choosing a non-traditional path is not at all easy. Women may experience sexual harassment when entering traditionally male blue-collar industries or be ostracized or just find themselves in a small lonely minority.

Kristoff's article doesn't address these issues. (But then I haven't noticed anybody addressing them.) Instead, he refers to an education writer called Richard Whitmire, the author of a new book called Why Boys Fail:

Mr. Whitmire argues that the basic problem is an increased emphasis on verbal skills, often taught in sedate ways that bore boys. "The world has gotten more verbal," he writes. "Boys haven't."

Has the world gotten more verbal? What did people do in the olden times, then? "Og take rock. Og slam rock on head of enemy?" What about Shakespeare, Goethe, T.S. Eliot? And how did the world get more verbal if one gender did not?

Interesting questions, all, especially given the decline in reading in general. But note the reference to teaching in sedate ways that bore boys. That was enough to make me go and read Whitmire's blog on this topic. Whether it's my unerring instinct for this kind of crap or my humongous verbality, I immediately found an opinion piece he had written in 2006 on affirmative action in college admissions for men. Here's how he sells the idea to women:

The dilemma admissions directors face is also a problem for the nation generally. The number of boys who are either qualified for college or want to go to college is in an alarming decline, and if it has gone unnoticed by the general public, it hasn't on campus. Men make up only 43% of college populations. At many colleges, the percentage of men has dropped to less than 40%, the tipping point where social relations get strained.

Admission directors prefer to keep the gender balance at 55% female and 45% male. But that requires taking in boys who on paper look less qualified.

Not everyone does that. The admissions director at American University in Washington, D.C., takes the position that boys and girls should be assessed equally. The result: AU's student population is two-thirds female.

That might be fine for American, but more broadly, having too few college-educated men will hurt U.S. competitiveness. And if girls who lose out now feel cheated, they won't when they're seeking mates or when their own sons are bound for college.

Emphasis is mine. I love that sentence! I guess those "cheated" girls will not have any daughters which also might feel cheated? None of them are looking for female partners? None of them will remain childless?

But we can also do a gender reversal on that bolded sentence and argue that we shouldn't have affirmative action for men! Because those men who don't get into college will feel OK later on when their daughters get in!

I may have hit upon the only biased piece Whitmire has ever written there. It's quite possible. But the argument that women should sorta gracefully give way to men because ultimately that's better for themselves is very, very common whenever the gender gap in education is discussed. It is a condescending and stupid argument, and whenever it is used I smell a player of the zero-sum game. It would be much more honest to argue that a person is for gender quotas in higher education. It would even be possible to make a fairly good case for such quotas without insisting that they are for the good of women and girls.