Saturday, March 25, 2006

Shed a Tear for Boys

The morning papers brought, in the form of additional puzzlement, more information on the general state of affairs amongst men and women. John Tierney's column in the New York Times discussed the latest in-vogue education topic: why are boys failing at school? Not "in" school, mind you, but "at" school, the whole thing. This same message brought to you by the folks who put on the Larry Summers Show, during which women were told that we should just accept that fact that we were just not as smart, at the top end of the spectrum, as men. Pardon me for a moment while I try to screw my head back on the right way.

Men are incredibly smart, men are incredibly incapable. Now that women have surpassed men in terms of college admissions and enrollments, men are starting to wonder what's wrong. They have decided that the big problem is that elementary and middle school education are set up in ways that favor the success of girls. Girls, for example, are very good at following instructions (mindlessly, apparently), while boys are not. Girls are very good at sitting still for long periods of time and absorbing information delivered verbally; boys are not. And the worst part of all--elementary school teachers are all women, which provides no role models for boys. Never mind that the elementary and middle school educational systems have been operating in this fashion for the last 150 plus years. Never mind that my six-year-old daughter is not particuarly good at following instructions, or at sitting still. Never mind that elementary school teachers have been women, even in the wild, wild west days. Never mind that until 20 years ago, men far outnumbered women in college admissions and enrollments.

Yes, people, we're talking about a status quo system in effect for over 150 years whose outputs have changed only in the last 15-20 years. A system that never, until the last decade or so, even bothered to look inward to figure out why there were so few girls on campus, why there were so few girls involved in college preparatory curricula, why well-educated women were not succeeding in the workforce, etc. Let me remind everyone why that was: women were, as a group, considered not particularly intelligent or worth educating. We were jeered at, laughed at, and harassed if we tried to educate ourselves to the same degree as men. It was an uphill battle just to maintain a seat at the educational table.

What has shifted in society in the last couple of decades? And, in some parts of the country, only the last decade or so? That parents and teachers actually value girls enough not just to let them through the school house doors and let them sit in the classroom, but enough to encourage them and financially support them to engage in professional hopes and dreams, and bring those dreams to fruition. And women have taken the lead and run with it.

I'm sorry--I just don't have any sympathy for this insane hand-wringing about how boys are being left behind by our education system. No one is standing in front of boys and telling them they're incapable or stupid or laughing at them and harassing them because they want an education. There is no organized social hegemony against boys. It's only when the playing field has been leveled and men look around and see that the systems they once thought inviolable in keeping them dominant are actually as well-suited to the opposite sex as their own that men start to freak out. When I think of the vast social, political, and financial systems that were deployed for decades to keep women out of higher education--people were spending real money on this defensive action, making vitriolic speeches, dumping resources into the fight to keep women at home, barefoot and pregnant--I just want to scream. Boys face none of this. There is no female conspiracy raising money and petitioning their Senators to keep boys in chains.

And it's the same old shit wrapped up in a new package. Tierney writes, "No matter what changes are made to help boys, they'll probably still be less likely than girls to go on to college, simply because girls' skills and interests are better suited to the types of white-collar jobs that now require college degrees. Boys will remain more inclined to skip college in favor of relatively high-paying jobs in fields like construction and manufacturing." Excuse me, but haven't white collar jobs required college degrees now for the better part of the last century, and haven't those jobs almost always gone to men? And now we get the little gloss of Larry Summers--it's that women are just suited to be the middle managers of the new milennium--not particularly good at things, not particularly bad, just basically competent individuals with no capacity for glory. And that last sentence--oh, the tragedy of having to trade off college for a high-paying job, a fate worse than death. Let's see, women who didn't marry used to have to trade off college for low-paying jobs. And, lucky for men, those union jobs still exist--the same high-paying blue collar jobs that were the last bastions of crude sexual harassment depicted so ably in North Country, the movie I watched last night.

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