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GiveLife.ca

    
Alpha girls v. snail males
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Our skateboarding lads need more than improved test scores, says college teacher CRAWFORD KILIAN. We need a society where no mind is wasted
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By CRAWFORD KILIAN
Thursday, August 30, 2001

The Durham, Ont., school board deserves praise for its efforts to improve the literacy of its male students, but it's just the start of a long, hard process that could lead to a radically new kind of society.

For over a decade, schools across the English-speaking world have been wrestling with underachieving males. Tony Blair's government has fretted about a "laddish" culture that discourages intellectual achievement. School critics in Australia blast educators for not doing more to improve boys' academic performance.

We see the same problem in British Columbia, where I've taught in the colleges since 1967. But the problem is much more complex than just getting the boys to score better on standardized tests. Test scores, in fact, may improve so quickly that the underlying problem -- male apathy about academic study -- will go unsolved.

Traditionally, girls tend to do better in verbal subjects, such as languages and literature, while boys do better in math and sciences. Testing in B.C. revealed that while girls and boys were doing better than the students of the early 1990s, the girls were maintaining or even increasing their lead.

This kind of trend won't be reversed by getting boys in Durham to score better on reading tests. If "laddish" culture still demands that boys be unambitious and contemptuous of intellectual effort, boys' academic achievements will remain relatively low regardless of their literacy test scores. This will put them at a serious disadvantage in post-secondary education because their female classmates will out-compete them for grades, scholarships, places in grad school, and jobs.

Gender competition in post-secondary education is already intensifying. In the B.C. colleges and universities, women have become a majority of the student population. They are still a minority in such traditional male bastions as computer science and engineering, but through numbers and ability they have dramatically changed the whole culture of programs such as business administration.

According to Statistics Canada, in 1977 women earned 48 per cent of all undergraduate degrees. By 1993, they were earning 58 per cent. Only 32 per cent of full-time graduate students were women in 1977; now they're a majority. In some professional programs, such as engineering, women enter in sizable numbers but then drop out; in others, such as law and medicine, they now form small majorities right through to graduation.

In the B.C. colleges' university-transfer programs, women are an absolute majority, whether as full-time or part-time students. Even if they don't go on to university, they're better prepared for career training, or for responsible jobs. Those jobs may be in traditional male occupations. But almost no men consider going into female domains, such as nursing or early childhood education. Evidently they see such career alternatives as a step down in pay and prestige.

Can we help the laggard males with more male role models, public praise for reading achievement, and other modest reforms? Perhaps, but we should recall that the male elite students of the 1950s and '60s started school with female teachers and bright female competitors. The system then was designed to spot and reward the brightest young men, and to consign the rest to jobs in the mills and mines.

Now we're trying to keep everyone in school, and to prepare them for careers in an information economy. Women are seizing the opportunity.

A few bright males are doing the same. The vast majority of the lads, however, seem to know they're beaten before they start, and don't even try to compete in anything but skateboarding technique.

If we do bring such boys into the academic mainstream, we should prepare for what I call "catastrophic success" -- creating a whole new population of superb "alpha-male" students, of every race and background, eager to go as far as they can in their education and careers. They would compete fiercely with women and with one another -- not just in traditional alpha-male fields, but in nurturing professions, such as nursing and elementary education.

God help the government that couldn't provide them with enough education or with suitable careers.

A generation ago we saw we were wasting many women's talents, and we've succeeded in drawing them into more challenging and productive careers. We still waste the talents of many young men, who passively watch their female classmates outpace them. Turning aimless lads into alpha males may mean using methods many educators would oppose. Maybe we need male-only schools, run like boot camps or monasteries; maybe we need wise old male samurai, inspiring boys to seek the same kind of wisdom, whatever their career. Or boys, slower to mature, might start school three years after girls do.

We should adopt whatever works, because we can't afford to waste a single boy or girl in this competitive century. We will still have problems in our schools -- but they will be a better class of problems than we contend with now.
Crawford Kilian teaches communications at Capilano College in North Vancouver, B.C. His latest book is Writing for the Web.


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