07/10/2006 03:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Male Laggards?

Did you notice the report this week about college women kicking men's butts (so to speak) in the classroom arena?

From my limited, anecdotal vantage, I can partially confirm those national statistics. What to make of them is another question.

Pomona College, where I teach, is a highly selective, small liberal arts college. It's usually ranked in the top five in those U.S. News and World Report rankings. The students are superb. (Mean and median SAT scores hover around 1450 combined, for what that's worth.) They are smart, and they work hard. It's a great place to be.

It also reflects those national gender trends regarding academic honors. For at least the last five years, women receive about 2/3 of the college-wide and departmental honors, even though Pomona is one of the rare small schools that has been able to maintain (engineer?) a roughly 50-50 women to men admission rate. But year after year, the clear majority of the Phi Beta Kappas and summae cum laude are turning out to be women.

In my classes, I can't help but notice that the intellectually aggressive students these days--speaking generally--are women. They are the ones putting in supererogatory efforts. In a seminar, they are the first to speak, and they are the ones to dominate the conversation. By and large, the men are sitting on their hands (and the exceptions now prove the new rule). In fact, a few years ago, the situation became almost comical: A seminar of mine read a book about this very topic, underperforming men (in the classroom, not the bedroom), and the women in the class practically begged the men to respond to the criticism. Yet the men just sat there, dumbly and rather dumbfounded.

I don't know whether the situation is due to a "war against boys" in K-12 education, or simply a happy up tick trend in women's education. When I've tried to raise the issue among my colleagues, the discussion tends to go nowhere. One administrator told me, "I just don't see a problem." Others have responded, giving me an on-the-spot mini-lecture, that it's still a patriarchal world on the outside, so young women know that they have to work harder to get a foot in the door of the knowledge economy.

To provoke a bit, I've pointed out that we have a Women's Union at Pomona College, but no Men's Union (to which the response has been: the football locker room is the Men's Union); or that we have a Women's Studies Major with all sorts of classes, plus endowed professorial chairs in Women's Studies, but nothing comparable in men's studies (to which the response has been: every class heretofore has been implicitly a men's studies course, and the majority of the faculty are male); or that we have a dedicated Dean of Women, but no comparable position for men (to which the response has been: the administration has always been top heavy with men). What I can say is that if there is a situation to be addressed, we, as an institution, are not addressing it (if anything, we compound the dynamics of male anxiety: last year, for instance, the summer reading required of all incoming frosh was a book about a guy castrated at birth due to a botched circumcision--a great image with which to start your college career!).

I don't know whether it's time to ring a bell to alert the country that colleges across the nation seem to be graduating a generation of wimpy, diffident, clueless, unmotivated men (see, I'm participating in that wimpiness by refraining from a manly call to arms). Maybe there's no cause for alarm, and the emphasis should instead be on women's gains, not men's temporary setbacks. What I do know is that the story of gender in America has become more complicated.