Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Divine Right of Boys in the Information Age

It occurs to me that in talking about a David Brooks column I had not originally intended to talk about, I failed to mention the passage that most caught my attention:
Some of the decline in male performance may be genetic.1 The information age rewards people who mature early, who are verbally and socially sophisticated, who can control their impulses. Girls may, on average, do better at these things. After all, boys are falling behind not just in the U.S., but in all 35 member-nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
That is to say, by being pretty much the same as they ever were, schools around the world are suddenly failing to sufficiently engage boys and, while girls (being sugar, spice and everything nice, and predisposed to resist the temptation of a marshmallow) are "verbally and socially sophisticated" in a manner that is allowing them to succeed in college and to reap the rewards of the information age.

My first response is, where were the concern trolls when women, frail, wilting flowers that they are, were excluded from higher education? Brooks' allusion to genetics evokes the notion of past eras that women were biologically unsuited to higher education or to a competitive workplace. And let's not pretend that those biology/genetics arguments have vanished. Also, if the problem is genetic, why does Brooks believe school teachers will be able to "fix" it?

At least when it comes to math, Brooks appears intent on proving himself correct and folks like Larry Summers wrong:
Even so, men make up just over 40 percent of college students. Two million fewer men graduated from college over the past decade than women. The performance gap in graduate school is even higher.
I'm not seeing good numbers on college graduation rates (lots on enrollment, not so much on graduation), and I don't want to spend more time at the moment looking. So I'll use a ballpark figure I saw tossed out, that 1.5 million students graduate from undergraduate programs each year. 15 million over ten years. Using the 60:40 Brooks shared, based on enrollment you should see 9 million women graduate and only 6 million men. Brooks is telling us that the number is 2 million and that this means colleges aren't engaging male students? He didn't share a source for his data, but I'm having a difficult time seeing that as a problem for men. I would like him to elaborate on his data and conclusions.

Also, no offense David, but guys like you are well-suited for college. Even if K-12 schools reinvent themselves so that the most rambunctious young men are engaged in ways that don't involve reading books, what do you believe is going to happen when they reach college and are handed a two-inch-thick text book or parked at a Bunsen burner in a chemistry lab?

Meanwhile, we have more than a few years of the information age to look at. Let's compare how women are faring to how men are faring. If I were to look at a list of the founders of the most successful companies of the information age, or a broader list of their executives, what ratio of men to women should I expect to find? That is, once we move past the world of K-12 education, where can I find Brooks' hand-wringing translated into a real-world environment in which women have the advantage?

I suspect that Brooks isn't actually talking about "boys" here - he's talking about boys being raised in low-SES households. Were his own son to struggle in school, I am skeptical that Brooks would be criticizing his son's teacher for requiring him to write book reports about "exquisitely sensitive Newbery award-winning novellas" (perhaps The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman). Brooks seems like the sort who would read the book with his son, try to engage his son in the literature and instill a love of reading and, if all else failed, hire a tutor to make sure that his son didn't fall behind the rest of the class. (He might even consider private school, assuming that wasn't his child's starting point.)

If Brooks were really talking about Henry V, he would be taking note that the new Henry IV benefits from the modern equivalent of the "divine right of kings" - a system that is set up to favor, privilege, preserve and expand his family's wealth, to the disadvantage of everybody else. Brooks can't argue that it's a zero sum game given his acknowledgment of the associated loss of middle class jobs and diminished opportunity for the non-wealthy Henry IV's. A modern Henry V doesn't need no education - he can and will fall back on daddy's name, money and connections, and a well-rigged tax code.

So let's not pretend that boy-centered K-12 education, whatever that would involve, would be a panacea. Let's not pretend that the modern Henry V's would be stifled in a traditional school while he would flourish in a rigid military academy. And most of all, let's not act as if the fact that the opening of doors, historically closed to women, is a bad thing, even if some men find that women outperform them in the ways that matter to the modern job market.2
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1. There is a sense in which men are genetically "inferior" to women - women get a full set of DNA building blocks, whereas men have lost a chunk of chromosomal material - hence XY instead of XX. That does translate into a set of Y-linked genetic traits, vulnerabilities, abnormalities and eccentricities, some of which can be beneficial and others of which can be catastrophic, with most falling somewhere in the middle. By way of example, see David Brooks' hairline - "male pattern baldness".

2. Brooks likes to talk about "human capital", and the optimization of its value. Brooks may well be able to fashion a K-12 program for kids who aren't college-oriented, and whose parents lack the wealth and resources to prevent that from mattering, such that their "human capital" is maximized. But who says that should be, could be, or is best accomplished through pushing them through college, whether or not they have academic focus, interest or aptitude? If Brooks accepts that his impoverished Henry and Henrietta V's aren't college material, why the lament about men struggling in college?

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