Perspective: Higher education just isn’t built for men right now

There are a number of reasons our higher education system rewards the talents of girls more than boys

Twenty years ago, David Brooks penned an essay in The Atlantic called “The Organization Kid.” It was about how the college students he encountered, particularly at elite schools, were generous and obedient and responsible, but they seemed to lack a certain moral grounding or any kind of attachment to a greater cause. 

He wrote: “All your life you have been pleasing your elders, performing and enjoying the hundreds of enrichment tasks that dominated your early years. You are a mentor magnet. You spent your formative years excelling in school, sports and extracurricular activities. And you have been rewarded with a place at a wonderful university filled with smart, successful, and cheerful people like yourself.” 

I was only a few years out of college myself when I read the essay and I remember thinking the “organization kid” was really an “organization girl.” It’s not that you couldn’t find boys on campus who excelled at juggling various sports and clubs in their schedules, or that there weren’t upstanding young men at these institutions who could please adults with the almost professional approach they took with their studies and other activities. It’s that the girls were usually better at it and frankly seemed to enjoy it more. 

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In ninth grade, when my friends and I were handed our first “planners” by the prep school we attended and were instructed to write down every assignment, the girls — others much more so than I — embraced this task with fervor. Classes were color-coded, assignments were checked off, projects were divided into multiple steps just so more check marks could be made. The boys typically lost their planners or wrote down one assignment a week. I went to school with some very smart boys — a number of whom went on to be quite financially successful — but this, I daresay, was not their thing.

Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported that men are “giving up” on higher education. “At the close of the 2020-21 academic year, women made up 59.5% of college students, an all-time high, and men 40.5%, according to enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit research group. U.S. colleges and universities had 1.5 million fewer students compared with five years ago, and men accounted for 71% of the decline.”

There are any number of reasons for this situation. Boys are not doing as well in K-12 schooling and so they are less likely to succeed in college. Jobs women pursue are more likely to require a college degree. The Journal cites researchers who mention “distractions and obstacles to education that weigh more on boys and young men, including video games, pornography, increased fatherlessness and cases of overdiagnosis of boyhood restlessness and related medications.”

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But then there’s another reason, I think, that our higher education system rewards the talents of girls more than boys now. Colleges today want multitaskers, not kids with a singular focus, and boys often do better with a singular focus. An 2005 essay by Mark Oppenheimer in the journal In Character (which I used to edit) gets at this problem (though not the gender aspect of it): College students in 21st-century America don’t seem to have the space or time in which to dive deeply into one topic, one author, one scientific idea, one mathematical problem. Instead, they pile up lots of classes in a bunch of subjects, various extracurricular activities, jobs and volunteer work. Oppenheimer writes: “The eight letters of recommendation that the Rhodes Scholarship committees ask for guarantee that nobody who has been passionately dedicated to one or two pursuits could possibly win. Promiscuous activity is the rule of the day.”

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At the end of the essay, Oppenheimer mentions the few schools that still allow students to pursue a more single-minded education: Deep Springs College, a two-year school where students farm and study Great Books (it used to be all-male); MIT, a school that is overwhelmingly male; and St. John’s College, another Great Books program school that has more men than women. (The fact that all-male schools have virtually disappeared from the U.S. probably hasn’t helped the problems of getting more men into higher education.)

It is not that all women are good at multitasking — though all the working mothers I know love to joke about this — or that all men are great at focusing on one topic in depth. But recognizing that men and women may have different strengths may help us to tailor education to better serve everyone. 

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a Deseret News contributor. The paperback version of her book “The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians” will be out this fall.

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