The conservative spin on the education gender gap is that feminism has ruined school for boys. "Why would any self-respecting boy want to attend one of America's increasingly feminized universities?" asks George Gilder in National Review. "Most of these institutions have flounced through the last forty years fashioning a fluffy pink playpen of feminist studies and agitprop 'herstory,' taught amid a green goo of eco-motherism and anti-industrial phobia." Sounds like fun, but it doesn't sound much like West Texas A&M, Baylor, Loyola or the University of Alabama, where female students outnumber males in about the same proportion as they do at trendy Berkeley and Brown. Even Hillsdale College, the conservative academic mecca that became famous for rejecting federal funds rather than comply with government regulations against sex discrimination, has a student body that is 51 percent female. Other pundits--Michael Gurian, Kate O'Beirne, Christina Hoff Sommers--blame the culture of elementary school and high school: too many female teachers, too much sitting quietly, not enough sports and a feminist-friendly curriculum that forces boys to read--oh no!--books by women. Worse--books about women.
For the record, in middle school my daughter was assigned exactly one book by a woman: Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. In high school she read three, Mrs. Dalloway, Beloved and Uncle Tom's Cabin, while required reading included male authors from Shakespeare and Fitzgerald and Sophocles to (I kid you not) James Michener and Robert Adams, author of Watership Down. Four books in seven years: Is that what we're arguing about here? Furthermore, I don't know where those pundits went to school, but education has always involved a lot of sitting, a lot of organizing, a lot of deadlines and a lot of work you didn't necessarily feel like doing. It's always been heavily verbal--in fact, today's textbooks are unbelievably dumbed down and visually hyped compared with fifty years ago. Conservatives talk as if boys should be taught in some kind of cross between boot camp and Treasure Island--but what kind of preparation for modern life would that be? As for the decline of gym and teams and band--activities that keep academically struggling kids, especially boys, coming to school--whose idea was it to cut those "frills" in the first place if not conservatives?
If the mating game worked fine when women were ignorant and helpless and breaks down when they smarten up, that certainly tells us something about marriage. But does today's dating scene really consist of women who love Woolf and men who love Grand Theft Auto? College may not create the intellectual divide elite pundits think it does. (Just spend some time looking at student life as revealed at www.facebook.com if you really want to get depressed about American universities.) For most students, it's more like trade school--they go to get credentials for employment and, because of the sexist nature of the labor market, women need those credentials more than men. Believe it or not, there are still stereotypically male jobs that pay well and don't require college degrees--plumbing, cabinetry, electrical work, computer repair, refrigeration, trucking, mining, restaurant cuisine. My daughter had two male school friends, good students from academically oriented families, who chose cooking school over college. Moreover, as I'll discuss in my next column, sex discrimination in employment is alive and well: Maybe boys focus less on school because they think they'll come out ahead anyway. What solid, stable jobs with a future are there for women without at least some higher ed? Heather Boushey, an economist with the Center for Economic Policy and Research, noted that women students take out more loans than their male classmates, even though a BA does less to increase their income. The sacrifice would make sense, though, if the BA made the crucial difference between respectable security and a lifetime as a waitress or a file clerk.