Girls Against Boys?

Girls Against Boys?

Women now outnumber men at colleges and universities, but higher education has not become the fluffy pink playpen of feminism that some conservatives envision.


I went to Radcliffe, the women’s wing of Harvard, at a time when the combined undergraduate student body was fixed at four male students for every female one. I don’t remember anyone worrying about the boys’ social lives, or whether they would find anyone to marry–even though nationally, too, boys were more likely to go to college and to graduate than girls. When in 1975 President Derek Bok instituted equal-access admissions, nobody said, “Great idea, more marital choice for educated men!”

What a difference a few decades and a gender revolution make. Now, although both sexes are much more likely to go to college than forty years ago–the proportion of the population enrolled in college is 20 percentage points higher today than in 1960–girls have edged ahead of boys. Today, women make up 57 percent of undergraduates, and the gap is projected to reach 60/40 in the next few years. This year, even manly Harvard admitted more girls than boys to its freshman class. So of course the big question is, Who will all those educated women marry? “Advocates for women have been so effective politically that high schools and colleges are still focusing on supposed discrimination against women,” writes John Tierney in a recent New York Times column. “You could think of this as a victory for women’s rights, but many of the victors will end up celebrating alone.” If the ladies end up cuddling with their diplomas, they have only themselves–and those misguided “advocates for women”–to blame. Take that, you hyper-educated spinster, you.

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 Richard 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 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.

This is not to say that boys make the right choice when they blow off school, or even that it always is a choice. People’s ideas about life often lag behind reality–some boys haven’t gotten the message about the decline of high-paying blue-collar work, or the unlikeliness of rap or sports stardom, the way some girls haven’t gotten the message that it is foolish, just really incredibly stupid, to rely on being supported by a man. Most of them, however, have read the memo about having, if not a career exactly, career skills. Their mothers, so many of them divorced and struggling, made sure of that. As for the boys, maybe they will just have to learn to learn in a room full of smart females.

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