Why Boston-based academics Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Chait Barnett would want to downplay the severity of the growing gender gap on America's college campuses, I can't imagine. Their extended denial of this reality in Sunday's Washington Post, "The Myth of 'The Boy Crisis'," reminds me of comedian Richard Pryor's famous question: "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"
What my eyes have seen at New York University is the same imbalance—significantly more female students than males in the classroom—that surfaces nationally. The gender gap, according to USA Today, has widened to a 43% male- 57% female ratio, despite the fact that "there are more men than women ages 18-24 in the USA — 15 million vs. 14.2 million, according to a Census Bureau estimate."
NYU's male-female ratio is 40-60. Boston University, where Caryl Rivers teaches, is 40-60; Rosalind Chait Barnett's school, Brandeis, has a 46-54 imbalance. No one seriously disputes this persistent gap. In a widely quoted op-ed piece in the New York Times, Jennifer Delahunty Britz, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College admitted that there's a thumb on the scale these days to insure that enough men are admitted.
The elephant that looms large in the middle of the room is the importance of gender balance. Should it trump the qualifications of talented young female applicants? At those colleges that have reached what the experts call a "tipping point," where 60 percent or more of their enrolled students are female, you'll hear a hint of desperation in the voices of admissions officers.
Beyond the availability of dance partners for the winter formal, gender balance matters in ways both large and small on a residential college campus. Once you become decidedly female in enrollment, fewer males and, as it turns out, fewer females find your campus attractive.
So how can Rivers and Barnett argue that there is no gender gap crisis and that boys are not in "academic free fall"? I'll let them speak for themselves:
The boy crisis we're hearing about is largely a manufactured one, the product of both a backlash against the women's movement and the media's penchant for continuously churning out news about the latest dire threat to the nation. The subject got a big boost last year when first lady Laura Bush announced that she was going to turn her attention to the problems of boys.
But those problems are hardly so widespread. The alarming statistics on which the notion of a crisis is based are rarely broken out by race or class. When they are, the whole picture changes. It becomes clear that if there is a crisis, it's among inner-city and rural boys. White suburban boys aren't significantly touched by it. On average, they are not dropping out of school, avoiding college or lacking in verbal skills. Although we have been hearing that boys are virtually disappearing from college classrooms, the truth is that among whites, the gender composition of colleges is pretty balanced: 51 percent female and 49 percent male, according to the National Education Association. In Ivy League colleges, men still outnumber women.
I read these passages several times, incredulous. The Rivers-Barnett argument boils down to this: there is no gender balance crisis in education because white boys/men are still going to college in proportions near those of white women, and the Ivies remain slightly more male. Apparently the boy crisis is "manufactured" because (if it exists) it touches only "inner-city and rural boys." (The "soft bigotry of lowered expectations," anyone?)
Sorry, but I'll believe my lying eyes. If you look at data from the Department of Education (found in the USA Today article here), it is clear that, with a few exceptions, the problems with male college attendance exist no matter what race, class or income level you examine! Males, white or otherwise, are in trouble. The percentages of young men attending college has dropped over the past decade, across the board. Among whites, low- and middle-income men attend college at the 42% and 43% level respectively, down from the mid-1990s. In fact, even the percentage of upper income Asian males has dropped a percentage point (suggesting something may be going on even with the "model minority").
But even if Rivers and Bennett were right about white male participation (and they are not), the educational crisis for blacks, Hispanics and rural American boys remains. There should be significant urgency in addressing this challenge. Our two largest states, California and Texas, no longer have white majorities. Would Rivers and Bennett accept the notion that there's a "boy crisis" there?
The two apparently don't like some of the solutions proposed to address this challenge (single sex education, different teaching models for boys, male affirmative action in admissions, an emphasis on male role models), but denying the facts and the trends won't make them go away.
There are other touchy issues to consider. Shouldn't we learn more about the way boys and girls mature and process information, and not let political correctness stand in the way of alternatives to the current gender-free "one size fits all" approach to education? Isn't there work to be done on the values front? Young men find a glorification of Alpha male violence and misogyny in much of popular culture, and scholarship and academic achievement is often portrayed—especially in those inner city and rural communities where boys are particularly at risk—as "soft" or "sissy." That has to change.
The first step, however, is to acknowledge that there is a "boy crisis" in education; it may offend some people's ideological notions, but it can not and should not be denied. Sadly, for those who will look, it is there in plain sight.
Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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