The Breakfast Table

Where Have All the Men Gone?

Dear Abby:

The anxiously awaited results of the first round of the new Massachusetts statewide comprehensive exams are front-page news in the Boston Globe this morning. Lots of numbers–not broken down by gender, race, or social class, of course. But on the question of gender, remember that interesting tidbit that Bill K. passed along the other day? In his suburban town, 72 high school students qualified to enter the competition for the National Merit Scholarships. Of the 72 winners, just 15 were boys, and 10 out of the 15 were Asians. White males were close to half of total enrollments but a mere 7 percent of the academic stars.

Pretty incredible. But it does fit nicely with the big front-page story in the New York Times this past Sunday. Where have all the men gone on the college campuses? the Times asked. Women now outnumber men at the typical school by a 56/44 margin, and the consequences could be dire, the article suggested. Using language familiar to us from arguments about racial preferences, some administrators are worrying that there won’t be enough males to form a “critical mass.” Some are redesigning their recruiting literature, with one school dropping a cover picture of the library because it had “a feminine look.” (Somehow I never thought of Harvard’s Widener Library as feminine, but that apparently shows that I’m not a regular guy.) Although the Times did not even mention the delicate question of the implications for campus social and sexual life and even for future marital patterns among the highly educated, I’m sure I was not the only reader provoked to brood about the matter.

Diversity advocates who have long denounced the patriarchal hegemony of white males will quietly cheer, doubtless, but this story does pose some problems of consistency for them. When schools don’t get “enough” blacks or Hispanics and are thus insufficiently “diverse,” they abandon traditional admissions criteria. Should they now lower the standards for males and turn down female applicants with stronger academic qualifications? Many schools admit to doing this now, and more will in the future, presumably, since the trend is expected to continue.

Much though I think it is healthy to have a reasonably sex ratio in college, I’m enough of a meritocrat to object to affirmative action for males. I was on the faculty committee that merged the Harvard and Radcliffe admissions offices back in the mid-1970s, and I was briefly tempted by the idea that roughly equal numbers of men and women be accepted each year. But in the end I concluded that having a 60/40 male majority at Harvard was okay. If that’s how it worked out when all applicants were judged as individuals by exactly the same standard. And if it becomes a 60/40 split the other way, so be it. A college is not one of those dinner parties (are they still given?) at which it would be unthinkable to have an “extra” male or female guest.

But don’t you think that it is very worrisome that young males seem to be faring so badly in our elementary and secondary schools these days? And what about the future of the institution of marriage? Since we’ve been paired up happily for just three weeks short of forty years, you might have some strong feelings on that subject.