The media, or at least the New York Times, have lately been full of articles proclaiming the downfall of the male gender and the superior performance of women in various fields of endeavor. Just today the Times published an article by Tamar Lewin, "At Colleges, Women are Leaving Men in the Dust," suggesting that women had overtaken men in both numerical presence and academic performance at American universities. David Brooks, a neoconservative columnist, adopted a somewhat more skeptical approach, but generally agreeing that men were in trouble and placing a portion (although not all) the blame on well-intentioned but outdated feminist policies. A dissenting voice was aired by Judith Warner, a visiting columnist, who suggested that the difference in male and female performances was mostly limited to minority groups, and that the entire issue was being inflated in importance so as to obscure more important race and class issues. Similar arguments have popped up in other, less rarefied publications.
As the father of two boys, aged 11 and 15, I have always been skeptical about the role of gender in determining academic and social perfomance. My children both have a Y chromosome, but are otherwise as different as could possibly be, and they each share several characteristics with female relatives (including but not limited to their mother) that are as or more important than their gender identities. To the extent that any biological factor is determinative, I would tend to favor birth order rather than sex, although that too is highly circumstantial in nature.
That said, perceptions are important, and there is surely a perception of crisis among men and boys in our society, notwithstanding their dominance of most social and political institutions. Half or more of the boys I know have been diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit disorder) or a more serious ailment. Many take one or more medications to control real or imagined psycological disorders. In my own teaching, I find the female students typically more focused and universally more mature, although the grades tend to come out more or less even. Our faculty, while historically practicing a rather thinly veiled form of affirmative action for women, has begun to see them catch up with or overtake men in scholarly performance; without question they are more assertive on institutional issues.
Is the crisis real or imagined, and what if anything should be done about it? Gender is plainly too complicated to be summed up in a few sentences. But a few basic principles may be in order.
First, it seems clear that affirmative action for men, as increasingly practiced by American universities, is not the answer. As in other cases, preferences tend to perpetuate rather than confront the real issues, and are unfair to younger women who have done little or nothing to create the problem. A new victimhood is the last thing the country needs.
While generic preferences are unjustified, it does seem fair to take boys' special needs and interests into account, just as one would do for other groups. In preparation for tenth grade social studies, my son was recently assigned to read a book about the history of sugar, which will be waiting for him when he returns from camp in August. I don't know what the most common interests among 10th grade boys are, but I'm pretty sure that sugar isn't among them, and it's hard to believe he is going to approach this subject with a great deal of enthusiasm. Assigning work that is engaging to both genders, and organizing classes in a way that takes male strengths and interests into account, is probably not too much to ask.
Finally, I think that society needs to have a more honest conversation about gender and the strengths (and weaknesses) that both sexes bring to the collective table. You don't have to be Harvey Mansfield ("Manliness") to see that traditional male virtues--strength, initiative, a willingness to take risks and live with the consequences--are in short supply in many sectors of our society, beginning but not ending with the educational establishment. The issue here is not so much men against women as the conversion from a risk-taking, frontier society to a more settled, urban way of life, a conversion in which not feminism but technology and suburbanization are the primary culprits. In the struggle between Texas and Switzerland, most educational institutions lean toward the latter, and need to do a better job of encouraging the creativity and independence that are our country's greatest virtue. Women, as well as men, who share these characteristics should be encouraged.
One interesting sidelight to the gender issue is the question of birth rates. While American men may lag others in macho imagery, they are doing a relatively good job at the principal (and biologically the only) male role: making women pregnant and thereby reproducing the species. For all the talk of wimpy, put upon men, the U.S. birth rate remains higher than than in virtually any industrial country; when added to immigration we are expanding more rapidly than some Third World Countries. Could it be that all the talk of female dominance is simply a clever male ruse to increase their fertility? Stranger things have happened.