Saturday, March 25, 2006

More on the Topic du Jour

After writing a passionate and rather snarky post on the not-so-great crisis of boys failing in school, let me explain myself further. The issue is not that girls are succeeding in the education pipeline at the expense of boys. That's smoke and mirrors. Women are simply a convenient target because our culture has a long history of blaming women for men's problems.

The issue is that the subpopulation of boys on which these editorials and news stories are focusing is the same subpopulation of boys that would not, read, would not have gone on to college 50 years ago: low- to moderate-income whites and their black and latino peers of nearly every socioeconomic group. I'm not trying to say it's not worth educating these boys. All I want is for the focus to shift from blaming women to something more appropriate.

Look--the same population that has always gone to college, and for whom the college-track in elementary/secondary school is designed are still going to college in the same numbers they always were. Think of it this way: Harvard is a bigger place now and admits more students. Do you get the sense that in Scarsdale or Chevy Chase or Beverly Hills or the Philadelphia Mainline that boys are suddenly dropping out of the education system in droves? I think not.

The elementary/middle school system in this country was designed to provide literacy and basic math skills, plus civics lessons and basic U. S. history to all citizens. That is a noble undertaking, and the United States was one of the first nations to believe that all citizens should receive a basic, publicly-funded education. But we're talking about literacy here, not college-going.

American high schools have long served as a final sorting stage for college, and with a great deal of prejudice. School districts have long been segregated by race and income, and funded by property taxes, which means that wealthy neighborhoods have more resources. Kids from poorer neighborhoods in this country have never had much of a chance of doing college-preparatory work in high school, even in middle or elementary school. Affirmative action policies have sought to address this at the level of college admissions by ensuring that intelligent students who have not received an education that prepares them for Harvard can have a shot at Harvard or some similar school. But the root of the problem is actually preparing the kids for college in the first place. It does no good to be running behind your better educated peers for 12 years, and then suddenly be expected to play intellectual catch-up (no matter how very smart you are) in 18-24 months during your freshman and sophomore years at college.

So the enemy isn't women. The enemy is upper-income hegemony, with your basic salutes to racial prejudice thrown in for good measure. Are you surprised?

Our attempts as a nation at ensuring equal access to college education for all date back only to 1965, when Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Higher Education Act. That Act provided basic, need-based government grants for education to low-income students, known as Pell Grants. The law also established student loan problems, which were greatly expanded by Richard Nixon. That's the one great thing that Nixon did in his presidency. I would not have gone to college without Dick Nixon because the loan programs offered my family a way to meet the gap between their income, institutional grants, and unmet need. Had Dick Nixon not stepped up to the plate, my parents may well have decided to sink their financial resources into educating my brothers at my expense. While they were proud of my intellectual abilities, my parents would not have let me go to a school as expensive as Middlebury without the student loan program being available. They would have argued that my brothers being able to have the best jobs they possibly could was more important than my emotional satisfaction--they saw me as a person who would get married and be supported by her husband; that is, a career for me was simply a route to fulfilling emotional needs, not the need to support a family.

This is how women started going to college in great numbers. Through the HEA of 1965. And upper income women were first to take advantage of it--women of other socioeconomic groups lagged behind.

A good question to ask of higher ed might be, among the 2 lowest SES quartiles, why are girls more successful throughout the education pipeline than boys? Part of the answer is that more young men are in prison. Part of the answer is that boys in those 2 SES quartiles have traditionally been encouraged to go on to blue collar jobs, particularly union jobs with what used to be great pay scales. Those are in short supply these days. Among those 2 SES quartiles, there were never any traditional career expectations of young women. Get married and raise a family, or take a minimum-wage job to fill in the financial gaps. Thus, women of those groups are not dealing with the same sets of expectations and prejudices that boys are, or the same pressures or lack of college ambitions from their fathers.

It's all socioeconomic. Those of you blaming women out there, please shut up.

No comments: