Eric Sentell urges good men to teach themselves and their sons to engage with learning and with others before the gender gap becomes a chasm.
Over the last five-plus years, I have taught college composition to freshman and sophomores at multiple universities and community colleges in the Midwest and the East. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve observed multiple gender gaps among my students: the widely-reported enrollment gap and the underlying, more insidious gap in engagement.
My observations are necessarily generalizations, so some words of caution are in order. I’ve taught plenty of engaged, motivated males as well as many disengaged, apathetic females. Moreover, the gender gap involves multiple variables, such as family income. For instance, male enrollment in the Ivy Leagues remains higher than female enrollment. We need to remember these exceptions and caveats before we despair completely.
Yet some generalizations wouldn’t exist if they weren’t generally true. On average, my female students are much more engaged than the male students. They sit at the front of the room, bright-eyed and leaning forward. When I or their peers speak, they maintain eye-contact and listen attentively. When I ask questions, they readily volunteer answers. During peer review, they work hard the entire class session, independently exchanging papers with multiple peers. They use my advice on their writing and write longer papers (rather than set a minimum requirement, I ask students to thoroughly address the assignment).
In contrast, most of my male students have no apparent desire to learn. They stare vacantly, look out the window, or surf their smartphones while I or their peers speak. When I ask questions, they don’t seem to realize I asked anything. If they do, they wait for a female to break the silence that sometimes ensues when the women feel awkward about answering everything. During peer review, they half-heartedly exchange papers with one person and then socialize for the rest of class. Some of them largely ignore my advice on their writing and revise minimally. They sit in the back, sleep through half of class, and then email, “wen did you say u wanted revisions?”
This email is a perfect microsm of a systemic issue. The young man who sent this email—a journalism major, mind you—took so little pride in his writing to his English professor that he could not be bothered to review his one-line email one single time. Predictably, his coursework, attendance, and participation all reflect a similar lack of effort. Which is really sad, because he might be one of the most talented writers I have this semester.
I believe the engagement gap directly causes the enrollment gap. If these are the young men who care enough about their educations and future careers to enroll in college, then just imagine how disengaged the rest of them must be! It’s no surprise that so many more women pursue higher education. In general, they clearly value it much more.
To be clear, I am not an elitist snob who equates lacking a college degree with failure. In fact, I believe a technical education can often better facilitate a person’s professional and personal goals. Moreover, many successful careers and good-paying professions do not require any post-secondary education, and I respect people who choose to enter the workforce or start a business rather than attend college.
But I also worry about the implications of the enrollment and engagement gaps. Our knowledge economy can’t afford to lose either gender’s contributions, yet relatively few men are gaining the education necessary for some of that economy’s most important, lucrative, and secure jobs. Besides credentials, they also aren’t gaining any of the less-tangible benefits of an education: namely, the ability to engage things that lack immediate interest and entertainment.
Consider the earlier generalizations about my students. The underlying difference isn’t the students’ chromosomes, intelligence, or even their learning styles. It certainly isn’t the female students’ inherent interest in college composition, a required course. I have 112 students this semester and not a single English major, male or female. Quite simply, more of my female students possess the ability to engage thoughts, ideas, and people who do not necessarily interest or entertain them.
So for me, the gender gap raises not only economic concerns but also anxiety regarding my male students’ abilities to stick with problems. Complex problem-solving requires contemplation, and contemplation requires some engagement and persistence—like proofreading a one-line email before clicking send. This is especially true of most real-world adult problems; unlike video games or sports, they are rarely fun or entertaining to solve, and thus they require especially demanding forms of engagement and persistence.
I also worry about my male students’ current and future relationships. Relationships require engaged attention, both at home or in the workplace. Wives, children, bosses, and co-workers all want to be heard, and the inability to engage less-than-compelling subject matter (I know English isn’t everyone’s cup of tea) does not bode well for these relationships. As I told one class, if you look out the window while your boss is talking to you and your co-workers, then there better be something awfully important happening outside.
Our society needs more men who can fully participate in the knowledge economy and engage in creative problem-solving and meaningful relationships, not fewer. So what’s to be done?
For starters, we can unplug from our hyper-paced, ADD media culture every once in a while. We can turn off the TV, ignore the smartphone, and let someone else answer the Call of Duty. We can spend some time reading articles and books, contemplating ideas in depth and detail. We can listen to those around us more attentively, searching for something of interest or usefulness until it becomes easier to just listen. We can value learning for learning’s sake. And we can share these lessons with the next generation.
Otherwise, the engagement gap may widen higher education’s gender gap into a yawning chasm.
Read more in Education.
Image credit: Moyan_Brenn/Flickr