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It’s Not That Boys Are Dumb

A new, feminized higher education has changed its priorities.

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(Areipa.It/Shutterstock)

Talking about female ascendancy in academia is sort of like talking about crime statistics. We are all quite aware of what is happening, some of us may even have ideas why it’s happening, and absolutely none of us wants to be the one to say it. 

Naturally, then, Quillette was the journal to dig in. In an article last weekend, Quillette’s associate editor Bo Winegard, and Cory Clark, a woman with a PhD in social psychology, published an analysis of the changing sex composition of higher education. They weren’t the first to break the silence around the issue. The topic was raised last fall, when the Wall Street Journal wrote about the affirmative action programs for men at several schools across the nation, including Kenyon College and Baylor University. The Journal all but called it a male problem: “A Generation of American Men Give Up On College” was the headline. It wasn’t because boys weren’t good candidates for higher education, they wrote; they just weren’t interested in applying. I made a few guesses as to why

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Winegard and Clark go further. Breaking down a number of statistics on male and female psychology, they postulate that the ascendancy of women in the university is at least one cause of the changing attitudes around acceptable speech on campuses, from boycotting controversial lecturers to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion boards—the “wokeness” that has become par for the course at schools both public and private. In female spaces, which the academy is fast becoming, inclusion is more highly valued than objective truth. “In other words, these recent cultural trends in higher education are precisely what one would expect as women’s representation in academia grows,” they write. (Now there is a conclusion that will get you uninvited from parties.) 

We should not misunderstand what this means, or what it does not. The authors are careful to note that women do value objective truth, and men value inclusion. But when choosing between the two, to give one example, men favor research they believe to be objectively true, even if it cuts against their moral convictions, while women favor that which supports their moral convictions, of which inclusivity and equity are two major players, even if it is admittedly subjective. 

Whatever your thoughts on Winegard and Clark as party guests, their report highlights an important trend in education that has deeper roots than mere “wokeness.” The feminization of higher education is, as they say, “a self-licking ice cream cone,” not simply because more women in college means more administrative roles geared toward women, which in turn creates a more female friendly environment, as Mary Harrington has chronicled, but also because the very tools by which success in academia is measured are those that favor women.

Take the example of testing. In 2021, Harvard dropped the standardized test requirement for university applicants in favor of more gentle measurements of a student’s value. The move has been derided by old-school academics, who see it as lowering standards, but it also has the effect of making college admissions decisions much more subjective. Instead of test scores, personal essays carry heavier weight, as do mission statements, or statements of value. Students are encouraged, whether implicitly or explicitly, to milk stories about surviving bullying or becoming student activists—to demonstrate, along with their writing skills, their experience battling oppression, their commitment to inclusivity and equity. 

The idea that college admittance should be more individualized than a score on a sheet of paper is neither a new nor a bad idea. Prior to 1890, when Harvard’s president pushed for a standardized entrance exam, would-be students had to sit for an exam unique to the school, which covered any disciplines Harvard considered necessary for entrance. Princeton did the same, with its own, slightly different emphases. Earlier still, individual oral examinations were the norm, different for each college and, while impractical with the scale of college applicants today, likely still the best way to distinguish a true intellect from a hack. Between such examinations and a personal essay lies a wide chasm.

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We see feminization in the classroom as much as in entrance exams. A typical paper grading rubric is composed of turning in the assignment on time, following spelling and grammar rules, organization, adherence to the topic, and, finally, the logical strength of the argument. Four of those five categories have to do with what we might call “neatness.” Only the last involves intellect. Likewise, attending class can earn a student extra credit, as can turning in work on time, and even partial work can earn him partial credit. And speaking of extra credit, it’s almost always the women who seek it.

The pragmatic shift in education came in part due to the influence of John Dewey and the Protractivists, who emphasized critical thinking, democratic or cooperative learning, and hands-on, practical education over key elements of the classical model, such as memorization, argumentation, and abstraction. They hoped to expand higher education, previously only available to a few, often wealthy, Americans, to reach the masses. They were wildly successful. Recitations, once the bread and butter of one-room schoolhouses across the untamed countryside, are unheard of today, unless you’re in an explicitly classical school. Meanwhile, group projects, critical thinking exercises, and completion grades abound. 

The bottom line of education today is not for a student to be able to contemplate the highest ideas, but for him to learn the skills of rule-following, coloring within the lines, and cooperating with other students. Skills, that is, in which women in particular excel. These are not bad skills to have. One should be able to think critically, and working together is a virtue as well as a skill. But these are social tools; they haven’t much to do with academia. When they are the measure of scholarly success, over and above intellection, the effect is not simply a more democratic education—something which measures all against the lowest common denominator—but also one which gives women, the sex that created and governs social norms, a clear advantage over men. 

Winegard and Clark seem cautiously optimistic about the new trend. After all, it’s a step forward for women, and just because things are changing does not mean those changes have to be bad. It just means, they conclude, that objective truth will be weighed less seriously against preferences for “egalitarianism and harm avoidance and stated higher prioritization of social justice and emotional wellbeing.” As they note, the future is female, whether we like it or not.

“One way to predict future trends (albeit imperfectly) is to look at the percentage of men and women at different career stages: older cohorts retire and are replaced by new ones. As of 2020, men made up about 63 percent of full professors, about 52 percent of associate professors, and about 45 percent of assistant professors,” they report. Moreover, the majority of new doctorates today are received by women, not only in the United States, but in Australia and much of Europe as well.

While our language around women in higher education has been about “leveling the playing field,” the reality has looked a lot more like what hockey players call “tilting the ice”—that is, tipping the scales in your favor. It would seem that women, despite the high value they put on equity, have not done a good job of achieving it.

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