Sunday, September 15, 2013

Boys Failing in Schooling, Men Failing at Work

I've been paying more attention lately to all the new stuff about boys failing in school while girls thrive, since my family is such a perfect example. Many people have trouble taking this seriously because at the very top, men still dominate. Most CEOs, members of the National Academy of Sciences, Harvard professors and so on are still men. Ivy League schools and top engineering schools have no trouble attracting plenty of high quality male applicants. But below the elite level, boys really are falling behind girls:
Women in the United States now earn 62 percent of associate’s degrees, 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 60 percent of master’s degrees, and 52 percent of doctorates.
The numbers on the generation currently in high school are even worse, with nearly twice as many girls saying they expect to graduate from college or pursue graduate study.

Meanwhile, the economic consequences of not getting an education grow more and more dire:
For men ages 25 to 64 with no high school diploma, median annual earnings have declined 66 percent since 1969; for men with only a high school diploma, wages declined by 47 percent.
In other words, increasing inequality in the country is mainly about increasing inequality among men. Some are doing great -- running the world, in fact -- but many are struggling.

In the Atlantic, Christina Hoff Summers agues that we need to reduce the emphasis on theoretical learning for boys and bring back vocational training:
Sumitra Rajagopalan, an adjunct professor of biomechanics at Canada’s McGill University, developed a program for disengaged teenage boys in Montreal, where one in three male students drops out of high school. The male students she met were bored by their classroom instruction and starved for hands-on activities. She was shocked to find that many had never held a hammer or screwdriver. Under her supervision, the boys built a solar driven Stirling engine from Coca-Cola cans and straws.” Boys are born tinkerers,” she said. “They have a deep-seated need to rip things apart, decode their inner workings, create stuff.”
Which is fine with me; I think this "high school should prepare everybody for college" fad is crazy, and more vocational training would probably help a lot of boys. But in my experience, many boys would not respond nearly as well as Summers hopes. Some would be happy to learn real, practical skills, but many don't much want to learn anything.

I don't think there is any way for us to make high school something that every teenager wants to do. People pursue education mainly because they have some goal in mind. As I have been arguing for years, our basic problem is that the rewards you get for following the rules and obeying your teachers, parents and bosses and generally following the middle class script just don't seem very attractive to millions of Americans, especially young men. What we can do about that, I have no idea.


David said...

If your theory is right, a question would be, why are the rewards you get for following the rules, etc., appealing to more young women than young men? Another would be, were these rewards more appealing to young American men, say, 50 or 60 years ago than they are now? How would you answer these?

John said...

Office life is like school, and therefore more women are comfortable with it for the same reasons more women like school, whatever those reasons are.

I think the world used to be better for working men because, essentially, of patriarchy. As a working man you used to get a wife who cooked and cleaned for you and a status that seemed to count for something. As an office manager you got a secretary. Now you are supposed to do your own typing and half the household chores, and the whole structure of the family gives less power to the "head of household" than it used to.

It may also be that the threat of starvation and homelessness used to loom a lot larger, but I am not sure about this.

I know I am relentlessly negative about a system that works about as well for most people as any system ever has. But I am struck by the weak appeal of ordinary middle class life for so many Americans. Fantasizing about escaping from our world seems to be a lot more common than fantasizing about joining it.

My sons do not want my life, at all. They see nothing appealing about having a full-time job.

Khadija said...

I wonder has anyone ever stopped to think that "patriarchy" was a natural protection for males, and not a "superiority" category? (Although it has to be acknowledged that it got way out of hand for several generations- when I think of what my grandmother went through...phew!) Boys and men are much more fragile than people think, but when properly protected, they flourish brilliantly. I think there's a lot of wisdom in the saying, "Behind every great man..." Boys need their place as future leaders acknowledged, then they will prosper. I think that society will ebb and flow until things get back into shape.