By many conventional metrics, men are faring worse in school than women. They’re outnumbered by women on most college campuses, behind them in class rank (70% of US high school valedictorians are female), and less likely to earn master’s and doctoral degrees. This data is often cited as part of catch-all arguments about “the end of men” (the title of a best-selling book by Atlantic columnist Hanna Rosin making that exact point), though individuals pressing such claims generally fail to mention that men continue to dominate high-paying science and engineering jobs and that the male-female pay gap persists, due in part to the unavoidable fact that the actual physical burdens of motherhood are still borne by women.
But I will concede this point: women flat-out dominate the humanities, even as overall enrollment in humanities degree programs are in steep decline. I’m a history professor, and I’ve been teaching at the college level for the past seven years. In nearly every class I’ve taught, the highest grade has been earned by a female student. Class averages for women are generally in the B+ neighborhood; men are clustered in the low B/high C range. As a man who dearly loves the humanities—I majored in journalism and history, with a minor in African-American studies—I’ve always viewed this as a slap in the face. Why, when they’re ostensibly still wielding most of the levers of power in the free world, are guys such mediocre humanities students?
Each year, one or two students tell me they like learning for learning’s sake. They’re almost always women.
I now realize I’ve been asking the wrong question (and a very flippant one, at that). The appropriate question concerns why women are doing so well in school, given how poorly most liberal arts courses are taught and how much high-level teaching is conducted by underpaid adjuncts or self-grading computer applications (as is the case with many “examinations” in online courses). The answer, I think, reflects the continuing distinction between how men and women are socialized: The former are encouraged to range freely and directed toward attention deficit disorder-enhancing pursuits such as sports and video games, while the latter are rewarded for sitting quietly and listening carefully. And even though we’ve encountered many welcome signs that this age-old paradigm has begun to collapse, my own experience as an educator suggests that it remains at least somewhat accurate.
In other words, men fare worse in my classes because men are far less likely to attend my classes. There’s an undeniable connection between turning in assignments and not failing the class, and female students have proven to be much better at that. Women, or least those individuals whose socialization has caused them to embody characteristics our society problematically codes as “feminine,” seem far more willing to keep working within the boundaries of an outdated system that has already swelled beyond necessity.
But what is left for those unfortunates who cannot or will not deal with the artificial strictures imposed by colleges and universities? In a society that increasingly demands a bachelor’s degree as an arbitrary measure of quality and incentivizes college attendance through a host of government subsidies, such people are left on the margins. And for every marginalized person who founds a start-up company or invents the next Segway scooter, dozens more just get angry: Angry at even having to participate in a system that makes no sense to them, that gives them nothing in return, that cannot hold their attention for so much as one half of a split second.
I try to make eye contact with my students while delivering my unapologetically old-school lectures. Many academics now believe that the lecture is an anachronistic learning tool, only slightly better than useless, but I’m of the opinion that, however bad it might be, it’s less awful than everything else. When I look at my students, however, I can’t fail to notice the bleary eyes, the drooping eyelids, the sotto voce snores … and this even on days when I’m performing at my best. As depressing as that is, it’s far less so than the completion statistics for online classes, which range as low as the single digits for courses offered by providers such as the University of Phoenix.
I loved everything about college: Attending lectures, reading quietly in my room, playing organized sports, meeting new and interesting people. It seemed the perfect respite after a tumultuous childhood that had afforded me little time for self-reflection. Many people, particularly young men, appear to despise it. They want something better than this quaint and outdated model, something more suited to the demands of “real life.” And yet thousands upon thousands of negative course evaluations suggest that they hate online classes, with their innumerable busywork assignments, even more than they hate conventional ones.
My father, hardly a world-beating intellectual, once put a question to me that resonates even now: “Son, do you want to be an idiot?”
Once per semester, I stop and ask my students to explain why they’re in college. “Because I’d feel like a failure if I wasn’t,” some say. “Because it comes next,” answer others. “You need a degree to get a job” is a common reply. One or two might even remark that they enjoy their classes and like learning for learning’s sake. But they’re in the distinct minority … and, alas and alack, they’re almost always women.
I don’t know what to make of any of that. I haven’t any answers, and my own experience isn’t easily transferable. We must, however, find a better way of matching people with programs of study that suit their needs, whatever those might be. And if disaffected, distracted young men can’t even bring themselves to study what they want to study, if the trends hold and women far outpace men while still being outearned by them … then surely something will have to give. If traditional methods of male socialization, while in the process of slowly giving way, in the meantime yield a race of fools and anti-intellectuals whose habits of life are scarcely better than the conduct of alley cats, more’s the pity.
My father, hardly a world-beating intellectual, once put a question to me that resonates even now: “Son, do you want to be an idiot?” Then he ordered me to sit still and read my book. Shaming wasn’t a solution, but under the circumstances it was better than nothing. As institutions of higher learning attempt to navigate the uncertain waters of an over-credentialed and under-motivated society, it might behoove a lot of today’s lost boys to answer his question in the negative.