MIND OVER MUSCLE
Once upon a time, it was a man's world. Men possessed most of the tools one needed for power and success: muscles, connections, control of the crucial social institutions.
But then along came the information age to change all that. In the information age, education is the gateway to success. And that means this is turning into a woman's world, because women are better students than men.
From the first days of school, girls outperform boys. The gap is sometimes small, but over time slight advantages accumulate into big ones. In surveys, kindergarten teachers report that girls are more attentive than boys and more persistent at tasks. Through elementary school, girls are less likely to be asked to repeat a grade. They are much less likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability.
In high school, girls get higher grades in every subject, usually by about a quarter of a point, and have a higher median class rank. They are more likely to take advanced placement courses and the hardest math courses, and are more likely to be straight-A students. They have much higher reading and writing scores on national assessment tests. Boys still enjoy an advantage on math and science tests, but that gap is smaller and closing.
Girls are much more likely to be involved in the school paper or yearbook, to be elected to student government and to be members of academic clubs. They set higher goals for their post-high-school career. (This data is all from the Department of Education.)
The differences become monumental in college. Women are more likely to enroll in college and they are more likely to have better applications, so now there are hundreds of schools where the female-male ratio is 60 to 40. About 80 percent of those majoring in public administration, psychology and education are female. And here's the most important piece of data: Until 1985 or so, male college graduates outnumbered female college graduates. But in the mid-'80s, women drew even, and ever since they have been pulling away at a phenomenal rate.
This year, 133 women will graduate from college for every 100 men. By decade's end, according to Department of Education projections, there will be 142 female graduates for every 100 male graduates. Among African-Americans, there are 200 female grads for every 100 male grads.
The social consequences are bound to be profound. The upside is that by sheer force of numbers, women will be holding more and more leadership jobs. On the negative side, they will have a harder and harder time finding marriageable men with comparable education levels. One thing is for sure: In 30 years the notion that we live in an oppressive patriarchy that discriminates against women will be regarded as a quaint anachronism.
There are debates about why women have thrived and men have faltered. Some say men are imprisoned by their anti-intellectual machismo. Others say the educational system has been overly feminized. Boys are asked to sit quietly for hours at a stretch under conditions where they find it harder to thrive.
But Thomas G. Mortensen of the Pell Institute observes that these same trends - thriving women, faltering men - are observable across the world. In most countries, and in nearly all developed countries, women are graduating from high school and college at much higher rates than men. Mortensen writes, "We conclude that the issue is far less driven by a nation's culture than it is by basic differences between males and females in the modern world."
In other words, if we want to help boys keep up with girls, we have to have an honest discussion about innate differences between the sexes. We have to figure out why poor girls who move to middle-class schools do better, but poor boys who make the same move often do worse. We have to absorb the obvious lesson of every airport bookstore, that men and women like to read totally different sorts of books, and see if we can apply this fact when designing curriculums. If boys like to read about war and combat, why can't there be books about combat on the curriculum?
Would elementary school boys do better if they spent more time outside the classroom and less time chained to a desk? Or would they thrive more in a rigorous, competitive environment?
For 30 years, attention has focused on feminine equality, while honest discussion of innate differences has been stifled. It's time to look at the other half.