Schools, universities are failing young men

Last week RNZ reported that the proportion of men in higher education in New Zealand is at an all-time low, at only 39% of domestic university students. This is clearly very interesting, and also a matter for concern. But I think the nature of that concern is easily mistaken.

In responding to the figure, lobby group Universities NZ chief executive Chris Whelan expressed a worry that "New Zealand young men might find themselves shut out of highly skilled jobs," and that "large numbers of undereducated young men" was "not good for New Zealand".

These suggestions beg some troublesome questions.

I have been both a school and a university teacher in the humanities, and I think schools and universities are — to use the fashionable locution — "failing" young men. And that young men are voting with their feet.

I am closely related to two boys who (in the last year or two) left school early and have not proceeded to university.

Until very recently, that would have branded them as serious academic underachievers, given the — at the very least — unreliability of the knowledge and capacities of many people who actually do get to university.

But in fact, these two are both curious, articulate and well-informed. They can write and read — I mean, of course, beyond "functionally" — and have opinions that they are capable of discussing.

They would, in the past, have made excellent students of humanities disciplines. They left formal education when they did, not because school was too hard, but because it was too easy.

One of them routinely did all the homework that seemed necessary either in class — when the teacher was dealing with recalcitrant students — or on the bus on the way home. He was regularly top of the class.

The other found he wasn’t learning anything for which he had any respect.

From what either of them knew about the humanities from school, doing more of such stuff didn’t seem a profitable use of their time.

And for many boys, it’s no better if and when they get to university.

I can readily think of five young men who in the last few years came to university, with a strong interest in the humanities, and did not succeed — they dropped out, or got marks or feedback which discouraged their interest or dissuaded them from continuing.

These boys may have been a bit shy of hard work, but they were not boys who couldn’t read or who hated reading. But 13 years at school had failed to equip them with the skills and habits to capitalise on their interests and abilities.

At school and at university, we are failing to equip boys with the kind of learning that suits them; or else we are — some of us — trying to change them into something other than boys.

Boys want to know, and they are less interested in interpretation (especially interpretation that is not based on knowledge).

They would rather be examined on learnable things: empirical features of texts, names and dates, knowledge of content, who said what, than be assessed by what they think.

One student told me of being expected, in class and essays, to give "prescribed interpretations".

Young men are concerned about the true and the real, and value argument over agreement.

They would rather admire and appreciate quality than be asked to assess "appropriateness".

Some research suggests that boys are more likely to struggle in online learning situations with their emphasis on "interaction".

In class, they find the greater maturity, articulateness and responsibility of girls intimidating: particularly when the girls are in the majority.

All this is quite apart from whether or not some particular disciplines are ideologically anti-men, or are being taken in anti-men directions by their practitioners. On this accusation, I couldn’t possibly comment.

Boys are discouraged from finishing their schooling or undertaking higher education, not because they’ve been expected to acquire too much reading and knowledge, but because they’ve been exposed to far too little.

Are young men who don’t finish school or proceed to university "undereducated"? And when a broad base of knowledge is not regarded as either necessary for, or a desirable result of, higher study, can we say that university students are educated?

When the answers to those questions are (at the very least) "not necessarily", we are not going to encourage young men into higher education. And perhaps that won’t actually be anything to worry about.

—  Glenn Hardesty is a Dunedin-based writer, university tutor and former school teacher