A (really) few good men

For years men dominated college campuses. Why should we worry that women now have the educational upper hand?

By Cecelie Berry
Published December 8, 2005 5:44PM (EST)

An article in Sunday's Washington Post by Michael Gurian, coauthor of "The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons From Falling Behind in School and Life," reports that men are becoming an "endangered species" at the nation's universities. For evidence, Gurian draws on his teaching experiences at both a small Western liberal arts college and Howard University, a historically black college. At Howard, the female-male ratio is 2:1, but Gurian points out that the diminishing population of male college students crosses racial boundaries. Based on 2003 numbers, only 43 percent of students on college campuses are male and that percentage is expected to continue to decline.

Women, Gurian states, outperform men in most academic areas from elementary through high school. He attempts to answer the question, "Why should we care so much about boys when men still run everything?" Dowd-ing Thomases might put it thusly: If men aren't necessary, should we care?

The trend of females outnumbering males in college began in 1978, the year of the Bakke decision and the year I entered Harvard College. I remember an American history section, taught by a female teaching assistant, in which one of my female classmates expressed fear that men might be permanently sidelined by the onslaught of smart, ambitious career women. "I don't think it's time for us to worry about the fate of white men just yet -- they can look after themselves," the teaching assistant, who was white, had quipped. I couldn't help smiling. As a young black woman in a traditionally male, elitist environment, I still felt that, baby, we had a long way to go.

As a law student, I heard similar predictions expressed by my male law professors, who correctly augured that women law students would one day outnumber men. When Alan Dershowitz made a comment to that effect in a criminal-law class, the female students raised a unanimous cheer. We felt that our growing numbers proved that equality was dawning. I'd wager that no woman in that classroom gave a damn about whether the fate of our male classmates was threatened.

So maybe we shouldn't care. After all, there is the argument that the meritocracy compels: If women are now outperforming men in education, isn't that just because the playing field is level? Men never would have dominated college campuses as they once did if women hadn't faced outright exclusion and cultural prohibitions. Maybe the seesaw of educational opportunity, tipping now in favor of women, will eventually right itself, bringing the genders back into balance, without special treatment for either.

But now, as the mother of two African-American boys, I see a bit better how the other half lives. I have occasionally run into teachers who see my children -- who are, I say only for the sake of argument, superbly behaved (at school) and excellent students (mostly) -- as trouble from the moment they walk in the door. I attributed it to racial prejudice until I spoke to mothers of different races. Many have similar stories. They tell me, sotto voce, that most teachers prefer girls and few possess the patience or teaching style boys need.

So I see some value in Gurian's argument that the passivity of the "read your book, raise your hand quietly" mentality doesn't accommodate most young boys' temperaments. Although this style of learning, what he calls the "industrial classroom," has been around for over a century, the advent of coeducation has made its gender inequities more apparent. What's more, the decline of traditional families, lack of fathering and overall decline in familial attachment seem to disproportionately affect males, and their classroom performance suffers as a result. As Gurian puts it, "Our sons are becoming very lonely." To help, Gurian advocates a boys' movement -- similar to that undertaken for girls -- which would advocate continued study of boys' social and educational needs so they don't continue to fall through the cracks.

It's difficult to forget our history of limited opportunity and the social and psychic costs that have been -- and sometimes still are -- inflicted on high-achieving women. We are wise to remain circumspect about claims of reverse discrimination by men who feel entitled to historical preferences. But we should know, too, that the price of male flight from higher education is one that we will all pay for in ways more meaningful than a diminished pool of eligible partners. Gurian's argument ultimately affirms the need for an educational system that is inclusive, in that it accommodates legitimate differences -- and fair, in that it demands achievement for all.

Cecelie Berry

Cecelie S. Berry is the editor of "Rise Up Singing: Black Women Writers on Motherhood," which received an American Book Award for 2005.

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