Off the Cuff: March 2010

THEY ARE USUALLY hidden in plain sight. They happen stealthily, incrementally, noticed by only a few. And when the rest of us finally understand what’s going on, it’s too late. Social changes happen that way.

For me, the first hint was a newspaper article late last year announcing that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was launching an investigation into 19 colleges within 100 miles of Washington, D.C. (including Gettysburg, Shippensburg and the University of Delaware), suspected of sexual discrimination against women. Why? Because the commission believes that colleges are intentionally trying to even out the imbalance between the sexes; across the country, almost 60 percent of our college students are now female. So the commission is investigating whether colleges are accepting less-qualified applicants — i.e., men — at the expense of women. God bless our government for its trivial pursuits.

But really, the big question doesn’t revolve around Washington sticking its nose into another issue it will only muck up. The big question is how this happened, and what we can do about it.  

Women eclipsing men in higher education is one of those surprising trends that seem to sneak up on us, though it began, in fact, more than a decade ago. Many observers believe it started with the feminization of our public education. There was a push to emphasize verbal skills to make more students college-ready. This  seemed to benefit girls and hurt boys. “Most girls adjusted nicely to the intensified verbal skills demanded in the early grades; most boys didn’t,” Richard Whitmire, author of Why Boys Fail, recently explained to USA Today. “Boys are failing because the world has gotten more verbal and they haven’t.”

Should we now coddle boys and tailor our classrooms to make them more comfortable? I think we need to demand more of boys. There’s been a growing push among educators for single-sex education; part of the problem with boys is a too-cool-for-school attitude that has bubbled up from urban culture and gotten pervasive — let the girls be the “goody-goodies” who study. But if boys are taught in an all-male environment, they begin competing with each other not primarily for girls’ attention, but academically. The smartest boys, in other words, become cool.

Scientific research suggests that single-sex classrooms make sense. As we become more sophisticated in understanding how gender plays a role in our brains’ development, we need to accept the fact that boys and girls really do develop differently — that there is a biochemical basis for boys learning by doing, and that girls are better from a young age at understanding the puzzle of the world through language. (Imagine that! Boys and girls are different! Why is it, I wonder, that we invariably need science to make commonsense ideas of how the world works palatable?)

In fact, Washington did get its hands on this idea back in 2006, authorizing single-sex public schools, but at the same time, according to Whitmire, “not offering school districts research on how to do it.”

If separating the boys and girls in public schools to help everyone learn sounds like a radical idea, let’s go back to 1970 for a moment, when higher education was still ruled by men. Anyone who had suggested that in 40 years, women would dominate university life — that they would graduate in far greater numbers than men — would have been laughed out of the room. But it’s time to take a hard look at how our boys are not learning, and what should be done about it.