Cast Iron Skillet

A blog about teaching, English, and teaching English

Fear the Level Playing Field

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It’s common knowledge that high school girls are outperforming boys, and that college enrollment is now close to 60 percent female. It is now easier for boys to get into most colleges than girls, as admissions offices strive to avoid hitting this 60%, what some call the “tipping point.” The debate over this ironic form of “affirmative action” has been curiously soft-spoken, but it has had one wonderful side-effect: it has exposed as a sham a traditional argument against affirmative action—that a person who is admitted due to their minority status will always feel that they don’t belong, that they were given an undeserved pass.

No one has used this argument to oppose this new almost-universal bias against women. Colleges quietly tilt the playing field and never, ever, ever worry that men will suffer from feelings of inadequacy.

Because the same people who used that argument have now forsaken it, we can see it as the shabby circular reasoning it always was. The argument might be paraphrased: just as these males shouldn’t feel inferior because they’re not inferior, those minorities should have felt inferior because they were inferior. It’s merely the members of a privileged group projecting their feelings of superiority onto perceived interlopers. George W. Bush himself embraced this argument—even though it was refuted by his own experience, when, as a “legacy,” he was comfortable being admitted to Yale over more qualified men and women.

The evaporation of this specious argument is an ironic delight. But there’s a much more important item absent from the debate about the decline in boys’ performance: the most obvious explanation. This explanation is not notable for its certainty—it may not be the true root cause. But, because it is so blindingly obvious, it should be the first hypothesis that we consider.

To use the level playing field analogy, let’s imagine a controlled experiment. In the past, the field was tilted: men were playing downhill, women uphill. Men were winning. Now the field is level. Women are winning. If nothing else has changed, it’s a matter of basic deduction: women are smarter.

Pundits have bent over backwards to find that something else that has changed. Personally, my first bet would be video games (which seem to me to be vacuum cleaners for gray matter), but this line runs into a powerful lobby and rarely gets far. It’s easier to attack education, which, we are told, favors girls—who are better at sitting and thinking. And don’t forget: most teachers are women. Yet this argument overlooks the fact that boys were doing fine in the same educational system in the past. And recent years have brought more “boy-friendly” strategies and more male teachers—with little effect.

It’s more likely that the decline (if there is one) is not in educators’ sensitivities but in boys’ self-discipline. This is a fascinating question, but enormously complicated, with a web of intermingling culprits (parents? popular music? atrocious diets? ADHD epidemics?). Such a nebula of causes is pretty much unfathomable, and certainly does not condense into saleable books and programs—the stuff of which careers in punditry are made. Far easier to attack something smaller and more subject to control: education. And conveniently, this plays into the talking points of those who have led the vilification of teachers in recent years, and also those political demagogues and business interests intent on dismantling public education.

Why do we shy away from the most obvious explanation of the data? As a man, I see no cause to take offense at such a suggestion. I’m smarter than many millions of men and women, and many millions of men and women are smarter than me. What does it matter that there’s a few million more women in the latter category? Or that, statistically, women are one or two or three percent more intelligent? In a world of seven billion people, such percentages are irrelevant.

Personally, I’m far from convinced that an innate intelligence difference is a significant cause of the problem. What is significant is our willful ignorance of the most likely explanation. If we allow our fear to blind us to the obvious, then how can we possibly look at the problem honestly? And what are the real motives behind our accusations and proposals?

A more likely culprit for boys’ decline, in my opinion, is a potent resentment caused by the loss of power and status, a sense of denied birthright that some boys and men feel nowadays: a thwarted entitlement; a haunting sense that we aren’t important anymore, and may not even be necessary. It’s an existential paranoia. Such feelings often run deep and hidden, and have great destructive power. Witness fanatical Muslim terrorists yearning for a return of some medieval caliphate, or our homegrown zealots fantasizing about the “next American century.” Lost power is a humiliation. It hurts.

My hunch may be way off. And there are probably dozens, if not hundreds of overlapping and intermingling causes. But I don’t think action needs to be so complicated. Maybe that too is blindingly obvious. If we can overcome tribalism, and begin to think of ourselves as part of one tribe of seven billion, we’d go a long way toward solving this and other problems. No gender, creed, race, or nationality produces inherently superior or inferior humans.

I remember, some years ago, being thunderstruck one day when I saw an advertising billboard featuring Joe Camel. He leaned on a sports car with a sexy woman in the background. I knew that I was part of the target audience: a male. Yet it amazed me. The advertisers were expecting me to identify with a camel, because it was male, rather than a human, because it was female. They were expecting my gender identity to trump my species identity! And it worked, of course it worked. Advertisers know how I think.

This knee-jerk response, splitting the world into male and female, sensing a tribal rift, this is the real problem. It’s not something that can be overcome easily or quickly, but it is something we can work on, something that we can face honestly.


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