Maybe Boys are Just Stupid

Yahoo is reporting that 57% of people on college campuses are women and asking whether this is “cause for celebration – or for concern?”

This article irritates me because it conflates two related, but very separate issues. Yes, women are currently more academically successful than men, but this is not the same thing as saying that women are more academically successful at the expense of men.

The reason we have to be careful about making clear the distinction is that there clearly is a real problem and one that needs to be solved immediately, if not sooner, but the solution is not to exclude women in order to make room for men.

What’s not the problem

It’s not a problem that more and more women are going to college, that they’re doing better in school over all and that they apply to college in large numbers and go to college in large numbers.

This is a cause for celebration.

Amazingly, somebody can actually have success without it hurting someone else.

But linking the success of women with the failure of men makes it seem as if the solution to the problem is to just admit fewer women to college and more men so as to even out the numbers, thus making everything right with the world.

But there’s a telling paragraph in the Yahoo story:

“We think there’s value in having equal numbers,” says Jim Bock, admissions dean at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College. Last year, the school admitted more women than men, but it admitted a greater percentage of the male applicants than female. The student body’s male/female breakdown is about 48/52. [emphasis mine]

See what Bock is saying? There’s a smaller pool of men from which to draw. Not admitting well-qualified women so that you can admit the right number of men does nothing to address the underlying problem–that there aren’t enough well-qualified men.

Where Are All The Well-Qualified Men?

Well, I suppose we could just stick our heads up our butts a la Larry Summers and suggest that more women go to college than men because women are just biologically smarter than men.

Problem solved. Men don’t go to college in large numbers because men are just inherently stupid.

Maybe we ought to study some of the ways that stupidity expresses itself–excessive violence, crappy taste in music, high crime rates, etc.,–and then we can feel really smug about things.

The Real Problem

But the real problem has little to do with women, as a group. The real problem is that we, as a whole society–men and women–have really fucked boys over.

How have we done boys wrong?

Here are my votes, in no particular order:

1. Championing a soul-corrupting version of manhood that prizes accumulation of things and the degradation of women–see Hollywood, the glorification of the pimp, much popular music, and video games–without any real attractive alternative versions of manhood.

2. Shrinking recesses*. All kids, but especially boys, need to run around and wrestle and climb things and kick things and burn off energy and come up with shit to do on their own. Shortening recess periods means kids are restless in class.

3. Education, especially elementary education, is still an intellectual ghetto on most university campuses. Can’t hack biology? Flunking out of French? Switch to education. I had a lot of friends who were Education majors who were continually grossed out by the morons in their classes. Well, those morons go on to teach at perpetually shitty schools. To make a broad generalization, boys–like all kids–respond well to challenges. If teachers cannot challenge boys, boys will lose interest. Boys pay a high price for shitty teachers.

4. We drug them up.

This is a tough subject to talk about, and I’m guessing some of you already have your angry comments ready to go. Hear me out. I’m not an idiot. I’m not denying that ADD and ADHD are real disorders and I know for a fact that Ritalin and other drugs help people who really have these disorders.

I also know that it doesn’t take much to get your kid on these drugs. Having two brothers, I’ve seen it work both ways. One brother had a battery of physical and psychological tests and saw a team of doctors and psychiatrists before he was prescribed Ritalin. The other got it after his pediatrician said, “eh, his brother needs it, can’t hurt him.”**

Of course people should get the medicine they need to help them, but how is it possible that we went from almost no one needing these drugs to, in some schools, almost everyone needing them?

Listen, social scientists, I know proximity does not necessarily indicated causality, but isn’t it interesting that when I went to college very few kids were on ADD drugs and the ratio of men to women in college was pretty close to 50/50? And isn’t it curious that, as these drugs became more widely prescribed to boys–as evidenced by the two stages of ease of drug procurement represented by my brothers–the number of boys going to college plummets?

Why might that be?

Let’s go to Huck for the first-hand account:

Did it help me? Depends…… It is all a matter of perspective. It improved my ability to code tenfold, and gave me the focal power of a zombie at a Neurology conference. Now I can sit here and code until either the cows come home or the drug wears off. So yes, it helped my ability to do my job, but it destroyed my creativity. My brain could no longer surge from topic to topic at the light-speed pace needed to write something interesting. It is a total 1 to 1 trade off of personalities. I either keep taking the drug and keep my job, and thereby, keep my family healthy and warm, or stop, and throw everything I’ve built for the past 9 years into the trash and be me.

Let’s look at this carefully–not only because it tells us something about how we fuck up boys, but also because it tells us something about what might guide us as we try to decide if drugging someone is appropriate. In Flea’s case, Ritalin seems to have been the answer. Her son is doing better and is happier on it.

In Huck’s case, though, the result is not so clear. Huck clearly enjoys the way his mind works–leaping from idea to idea at lightning speed, drawing connections where others don’t. And for him, the trade-off of being able to concentrate on something he doesn’t like doesn’t always feel particularly worth it***.

Why should we expect other boys to feel any different? If they already feel ambivalent about school, prescribing them a drug that they don’t like the feel of in order to make it possible for them to sit through school is no way to convince them to go further in their education. It doesn’t take a genius to see that, if you have to take a drug you don’t like to go to school, you might not have to take that drug if you don’t continue to go to school.

Problem or Symptom?

The real hard question comes down to whether the declining numbers of boys in college is the problem or if it’s an indication of a larger problem.

I think it’s actually a symptom of two larger problems.

1. Things suck. Hello. Rich getting richer. Poor getting poorer. Jobs going overseas. Doom. Misery. Etc. We can debate all day whether things are as bad as they seem, but, America, things seem very bad to a lot of people. And it doesn’t seem like they’re going to get better.

Is it any surprise that our societal anxiety has manifested itself in the despair of boys? I think not.

2. You sleep in the bed you made****. How long have I been saying that crappy ass attitudes towards women hurt men? As long as any of you have known me. And some of you even have kind of humored me. Well, here you go.

You spend all a boy’s life telling him, “Don’t be a pussy.” “Don’t be a bitch.” “Don’t do that girly shit.” and what does he learn? That his opposite is whatever is female and that he must avoid doing anything that might be perceived as feminine because “being a man” is both the most important thing in the world and, apparently, so very weak and fragile.

And now that girls are doing well in school and going on to college and excelling in even traditionally male-dominated fields, y’all are in quite quandary.

You pretty much need to go to college in order to succeed in life, but girls go to college. Only pussies like and do well in school.

We tell boys over and over to not be pussies. Surprise. They don’t want to do girly shit like learn.

I’d laugh if your bull-headed insistence on never being associated with any of my attributes wasn’t so fucking sad and obviously harmful to yourselves.

* It’s not just recess, but recess kind of stands for something larger about the fact that we don’t really let kids have time to just fuck around any more.
** I should say that both of them sold their Ritalin for pot money, so I can’t really judge which way was “better,” since the end result was the same.
*** Again, my opinion. Hopefully Huck will come by and clarify if I’m misreading him.
**** It was really all I could do to keep from calling this section “Stewing in your own ‘Don’t be a pussy’ juices.” I hope you appreciate my restraint.

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14 thoughts on “Maybe Boys are Just Stupid

  1. Excellent post, B. I can’t speak to the ritalin issue, but my totally unscientific brain says it makes sense. Whether you are right or wrong (and I suspect you are right) on this issue, on the others I would have to say I was nodding my head. Thanks for making me think.

  2. You may be the bravest blogger on the planet..or the nerviest, maybe both.

    I couldn’t agree with you more re recess (or lack of recess). My wife is a long-time elementary school art teacher, and suffers the effects of boys being sent to her class having had no recess and little PE..they want to climb the walls and paint each other.

    We are doing all of our kids a grave dis-service by not offering more free play and by doing little in some cases, educationally, other than teaching to the no-child-left-behind-BS-TESTS.

    Re your first argument about the fallacy of allowing more guys into school just so that the ratio is more equal..couldn’t someone take your same argument and apply that against affirmative action re school enrollment? I”m not saying they should or shouldn’t..but that did come to mind while reading the post.

    Thanks for laying it out there, Aunt B.

  3. YT, thanks.

    John, I’ve been thinking about the affirmative action angle and I actually think that my point of view is still sympathetic to the goals of affirmative action.

    The point of affirmative action was/is to recognize that the deck was/is so stacked against certain groups that emergency measures must be taken.

    I’m still a pinko commie bastard, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something on the surface to the conservative argument that affirmative action wasn’t supposed to last forever.

    Of course it wasn’t.

    Affirmative action was supposed to jump start things–allowing a lot of people opportunities previously denied to them. There was supposed to be a concurrent effort to improve schools and neighborhoods and such. You see what I’m saying? Affirmative action was supposed to be one tool for fighting systemic inequality. Instead, it’s been touted by both sides as the solution. That’s obviously bullshit.

    It’s bullshit that social conservatives are all like “well there sure are a lot of [whatever group] folks around now. We don’t need affirmative action any more.” withouth addressing any of the underlying problems.

    And it’s bullshit that social liberals are all like “oh, the problems [whatever group] faces are so enormous that we don’t even know how to deal with them, therefore we still need Affirmative Action.”

    My fear is that, when it comes to boys, we’ll end up doing the same thing. We’ll blame women; we’ll install some quota systems. But we won’t do anything about the underlying issues.

    But that doesn’t mean I’m not sympathetic to the impulse. I mean, if you see a town flooding, you sandbag the levee. You don’t just sit around and say “Well, obiously the levee failed. Tough shit.” But you also don’t, after the threat of flood has passed, think the sandbags are the appropriate long-term solution to the problem.

  4. Ann Althouse, a law prof in Wisconsin blogs about this issue a lot, so I’ve thought a lot about it. Why aren’t there more men in college? Well, all the reasons you listed, plus the fact that men have an easier time getting higher-paying jobs without college. There are still a lot of men succeeding with what used to be looked down upon–vocational training. Right now, it is far easier for a man to get a good job if he can write code, fix a car, solder a motherboard, drive a truck or even run his own lawncare business. Or blow stuff up or dig elevator shafts downtown. There are many men who have advanced college degrees but have abandoned their field to do these other things. My husband does NOTHING related to what he spent 9 years studying in school. Huck, whom you mentioned in the article, also does nothing related to his degree. A lot of our young men see this and are pragmatic enough to realise that you don’t necessarily need to sink 4+ years of your life in a system without a guaranteed payoff. Unless you are going to school to be a degreed professional (i.e. Doctor, Lawyer, teacher), most Liberal Arts degrees are no longer serviceable as entrees into a solid career of professional earning. Men, who tend to be more pragmatic by and large, are getting the gist of this.

    Women, with their gender-driven needs for security and stability are still choosing the college path as it has the good press.

  5. Studying Soviet Foreign Policy is paying off for me BIG TIME. Thank god this Cold War will be around forever.

  6. Kat brings up a good point. You gals need that MRS. degree in order to get that stability and security you crave so desperately, and are willing to go to college to meet that Mr. Right, or wind up in the Womyn’s Studies program and turn lesbo.

  7. the closest thing I do to use my Political Science Degree is blog about politics enough to be branded a leftist along with the Communists for Tenncare on Krumm’s blog. I wear the red-tinged badge proudly.

    I work with computers and software with the state. I am convinced that many of the indirect skills I learned in a rigorous, tough political science curriculum helped me get this job and to do my job, but there is certainly no direct correlation between what I took and what I’ve become, work-wise.

    My daughter is pursuing some totally impractical International Relations degree, while my sons are doing the accounting and engineering thing.

    I relate more to my daughter. She sees education as a pursuit, while my sons see education as a means to an end.

  8. I kind of see it as both. Hence the hundreds of hours I’ve logged here and there with no real degree attached. I think you can always be learning–in and out of school. I’ve just gotten to the point where I don’t personally think a college degree is the coveted prize it once was. Scratch that. It IS a prize, but I don’t think it is, as my Dad once told me, the key that unlocks the doors to the upper middle class.

    I see the whole issue as broken into three parts: Ready, Willing and Able.

    I’ve dealt with Willing–men are perhaps less willing to spend 4+ years and oodles of cash on something with less chance of a concrete payoff.

    Ready and Able is a lot of what B is talking about in her thesis here. Current classroom structure as early as elementary school isn’t geared toward the way boys learn as opposed to the way girls learn. The system, in trying to downplay gender differences has ended up rewarding girls by playing to their learning style and drugging the boys to make them compliant.

  9. I think your analysis is interesting, but misses a key point — both men and women are going to college in greater numbers than before. There’s no “failure” of boys. It’s just that there’s been an even larger increase in the number of women going to college.

    Also, I think we need to consider that males succeed in our society with less education. In my state, the average annual salary of a college-educated female is 10K less than a college-educated male, or about 77%. So, while boys are doing worse in school, they’re still coming out on top. Maybe school isn’t all that related to success.

  10. *** Again, my opinion. Hopefully Huck will come by and clarify if I’m misreading him.

    Spot on, Mz. B. There’s nothing more to clarify.

    Mz. K. makes an interesting observation, though, in regards to the overwhelming prevalence of men in the vocational fields.

    This fact may also hint at another major factor currently driving more men away from college than women – The bulk of the higher-paying jobs in this country are technical, and consequently do not require a college degree.

    As to why there are more men than women pursuing these technical and vocational jobs, there are many schools of thought. Is it that…
    1. …there are social prejudices at play that are keeping women from joining the traditional vocational arena? – Undeniably.
    2. …men are generally more left-brained, and thereby, better at math and technology than women? – Well, I’m smart enough not to touch that one.
    3. …men generally have less self-disipline than women, and thereby, are more likely to go directly into the workforce instead of enduring more years of education directed towards the perfect dream job. – I suspect this is highly likely.

    Probably it’s a good mix of all or some of these, plus a truckload of other factors, that are ultimately keeping the numbers of male grads low.

    Hmmm?
    I’ve got to give this issue more thought before I can go on about.

    Interesting stuff.
    Great Post.

    Thanks, Aunt B!

  11. Oh, Kat, you bring up a good point, which I obviously circle around, but never make the connection. You’ve got to wonder, when looking at this article, how much of this is “oh my god, people aren’t doing things exactly how I did them!” crap.

    How do we measure whether boys are suffering because of their decision not to go to college or whether they’ve just found some other way to be fulfilled that doesn’t match up with the dominant paradigm?

    Plus, I’d be curious to know if this same gender gap holds true above the age of 24. In other words, are we seeing hysteria because boys aren’t going to college or are we seeing hysteria because boys aren’t going to college right out of high school?

    Maybe they’re working for a few years and then going. Or not.

    John, I think you’re on to something as well. People get (or don’t get) college degrees for a wide variety of reasons, one of which being exactly how much they think getting a degree will help them achieve their career goals and whether or not that matters to them.

    I have an English degree with a minor in history and another one in Russian. Not because I had any goals, but because I didn’t and never did make up my mind about what I wanted to study, let alone what I wanted to do with my life. (Apparently, I missed the orientation session explaining that I had four years to find a husband or risk winding up a lesbian who can’t spell or harrassed by old men on the internet who are both charmed and off-put by my awesomeness.)

    Anyway, all of those things are useful in some abstract sense to my job, but really what I need is to be able to read Spanish and I never did bother to pick that up.

    Still, I’m well-served by the curiosity that was nurtured at college, even if it gave me no life skills.

    Anyway, it looks like Kat was answering while I was writing, and she’s got it more succintly and better-thought-out than me.

  12. If it helps, I can say that the over-25 students we get are even more disproportionately female than the under-25. If the guys don’t go to college, it’s not that they’re postponing it; they’re just not going.

    Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is more complicated.

  13. Here’s my illustration of why men don’t go to college….

    Me – BS and MS in civil engineering from good in-state schools. Professional engineers license (which ain’t easy to get) and 9 years practical experience designing bridges.

    My brother – 5 years as a professional minor league baseball player before he was cut due to injury.

    He got a job in sales just last week. His minimum salary is the same as mine. But his goes up with commission and mine doesn’t.

    It’s an interesting expirement. Different inputs, same results. College made no difference.

    W

  14. Is it wrong, then, to be happy that my wife and I are about to have a girl as our first child?

    Seriously, Aunt B., thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I, too, have my issues with the amount of influence Big Pharma has wielded over the social and physical development of our nation (can you say ‘unnecessary vaccinations’?).

    Also, the hyper-macho approach has never worked for me. Maybe that’s why I’ve decided to (hopefully) eventually switch from a hyper-macho job (firefighter) to a ‘girly’ job (history teacher). I’m hoping that one day I’ll be able to get a few boys (and girls, of course) to learn to f–king think instead of learning to be gleeful tools of ignorance.

    We’ll see. Anyway, thanks again.

    (p.s.: speaking of the apparent male embrace of ignorance, is it any wonder that Bush supporters tend to trend more strongly toward being male? How’s about the Head Chimp himself? No wonder he’s so popular with the boys…)

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