Jewish World Review March 16, 2004 / 23 Adar, 5764

Peter A. Brown

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Schools should focus on boys — now | My 12-year-old daughter insists girls are smarter than boys, and the data about who goes to college these days make me wonder if she isn't on to something.

Without getting into a discussion of genetics and intelligence, she's right about the nation's colleges, where almost 57 percent of students are women.

If the numbers were reversed, deep thinkers would be calling for massive government action. Even now, programs for females, who make up only 49 percent of the 18- to 24-year-old population nationally, far outnumber those for boys.

For instance, the Association of American Colleges and Universities sponsors the National Initiative for Women in Higher Education, yet has nothing comparable for boys.

It is not alone. The silence in academia is deafening because of the issue's touchiness.

Before the PC police put me in the gulag, let's be clear: Boys' underachievement does not result from the discrimination that once held women back.

No one is suggesting we return to an era where girls' needs are secondary.

But somebody, somewhere, better start thinking about boys. They are now the pressing problem.

The ramifications of the imbalance are ominous, and not just for the male of the species.

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Simply put, a 21st-century society in which men are much less educated than women will face serious problems:

_Strong minds rather than strong bodies are the coin of the realm in the global economy. If the male population can't compete in a highly sophisticated, high-tech economy, the country overall will suffer.

_A nation of men with inferior intellectual backgrounds and economic prospects will likely be one of lower marriage and higher divorce rates.

That's a problem because the data show that higher marriage rates are the most efficient tool to reduce poverty and pathology in society.

In fact, this situation is already playing out today in the African-American community, where the gender imbalance in education is a "disaster" for the black family, said Theodore Shaw, head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

His point is that already, with an even larger share of African-American college students being female than among whites, black women complain there is a dire shortage of marriageable men.

Little more than a third of black women are married, a driver of the black community's greater poverty and social problems. Almost six in 10 white females are married.

Of course, some wonder, what is wrong with a society in which women are the primary breadwinners and men play a secondary role?

Yes, there are millions of families, even now, in which the wife brings home the bacon and the husband takes care of home and hearth.

But as a societal model the idea of the woman as the primary breadwinner, and the husband as tending more to domestic needs, is problematical, especially for raising children.

Few, except perhaps ardent champions of a unisex society, would be hard-pressed to argue that overall men do as good a job taking care of the kids.

Moreover, there is a need to understand what the country will face if this trend continues unchecked, and to figure out how to cope with the changes that will be required.

Here's an indication. Women are now a majority of medical students, and this is reshaping the profession. The Council on Graduate Medical Education has revised its forecast to warn that the United States will face a shortage of doctors.

The American Academy of Family Physicians is about to study that issue, but its president is sure that the influx of women is a factor.

"Women don't spend as many years of practicing medicine" as do men, said its president, Dr. Michael Fleming. "It's common sense. Women go to med school and have babies, and a percentage work less than full-time or don't work at all for a time" to care for their children.

Whether one sees this as a victory for female achievement, a reflection of a better balance between work and family or a problem for the medical profession, the trend exists.

Multiply medicine by the many other sectors of the economy and it's clear that ignoring this issue and its ramifications is not an option.

There are no easy answers to why the gender imbalance in college exists, much less what to do about it.

Admissions preferences for boys are both morally wrong and illegal. (The University of Georgia has already been told by the courts to stop doing it.)

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige says the gender imbalance in college "is something we need to be interested in," but he doesn't have any ideas about what to do.

Unfortunately, at this point, no one else seems to either. At the very least, we need to start thinking about the subject.

Peter A. Brown is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Comment by clicking here.


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