Sunday, October 16, 2005

Brooks on Innate Differences between the Sexes

David Brooks is babbling merrily again. In his most recent column he starts with an astounding statement:

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.

This is astonishing stuff. Brooks thinks that Africa and Asia, for example, are not a man's world? He points out the long list of female presidents in America and Europe? He notes that everywhere women earn more than men? No. He does none of this, of course. What he does is scare people with the ominous picture of a feminized future. The terror of petticoats in power.

As you probably spotted from the last sentence of the quote Brooks's article is on the inferior performance of boys at school. He presents the usual threat that will come if women indeed outperform men ultimately, which is the possibility that women can't marry someone at least as educated as they are! I am old enough to remember what was written when men were the majority in colleges (as they still are in graduate degree programs), and never do I remember much worry about the men having to marry so much beneath them in education. Come to that, I don't remember much hand-wringing about the fact that women were a minority in higher education. It was just the way things are.

The neat thing about the group that believes in deep and important innate differences between the sexes is that everything, but everything, can be explained by appealing to such differences. Let me show how this is done: When the furor was about Harvard president Lawrence Summer's comments concerning the scarcity of women in mathematical and technical fields (where he speculated on the possibility that women are innately less likely to do sciences and mathematics), the innate school argued that the imbalance might be unavoidable.

Now that the furor is about girls outperforming boys in general, the innate school, in the form of David Brooks, argues that the environment must be changed:

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, which is 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. During that time honest discussion of innate differences has been stifled (ask Larry Summers). It's time to look at the other half.

So let me see if I got it right: When men benefit from supposed innate differences we should let the situation be as it is, but when women benefit from supposed innate differences we should adjust the environment to make things so that women won't benefit?

The question why boys are not thriving at school is an important one. But why does it have to be made into a question about girls performing too well? Why is there this continuous need to make the situation into a zero-sum war between the sexes?

At least Brooks points out something I have argued for a long time: It is not feminism that has caused schools to become horrible places for boys (never mind what Tangoman will say in the comments later), because the same trend is seen all over the world, including in countries such as Iran where feminists are not exactly ruling the roost:

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."

But this global appearance of the problem also points out that many of the suggestions Brooks makes, about giving boys more time to run around or about adding books about combat and war and so on, are unlikely to work because they address characteristics of only some school systems in this world.

I am not an expert in the field of education, but I have a few suggestions to explain why girls might, on average, work harder at school than boys, and they have to do with the fact that in the U.S., for example, the average earnings of a man with just a high school education roughly equal the average earnings of a woman with a college degree. A woman who wants to earn more than the minimum wage will pretty much have to get a college education, whereas a man need not go that far if he doesn't feel like it. Couldn't this simple economic fact go pretty far in explaining why women study harder? Think of a country like Iran here. Education is probably the only way a woman there can ever acquire any independence from her family. Indeed, I would be surprised not to find the Iranian college students at least sixty percent female.

In a sense I see the root of the problem in the very gender inequality that has so long prevailed, the one that Brooks flippantly casts as something that used to exist in the past. School just isn't as important for boys, because boys will grow to be men and men have a certain edge in the labor market partly due to custom and tradition. Blue-collar jobs often pay quite well and blue-collar jobs are among some of the more sexist ones. Just ask the women who have tried to enter, say, the occupations of electricians or plumbers.

In the same sense, some of the roots of the problem lie in the cultural values that make whatever women do well as somehow not worthy for men to do at all. We see this in everything from beer commercials to occupations: If women like it or excel in it men tend to disappear like mist in the morning. So why not so in education? Not worth trying it, it seems, if mere girls can ace it. But I'm just being bitter here, probably.