Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why Johnny Doesn't Have a College Degree

A few days ago, I had the privilege of visiting with a 98-year-old man, whom I had never met before. He was anxious to share some of his life experiences, such as his decision to go to college during the Great Depression, and the $60 per semester tuition he had to pay (which included books, though he had to return them when the class was done). At some points, the conversation knew no generational lines; we alternated discussions of the past with the present--we discussed the NCAA Tournament and the poor showing of the Wisconsin basketball team the previous night. It was rather remarkable to think that this man is only 22 years younger than the sport of basketball itself. At one point, he was asked to what he attributed his sharpness and alertness of mind. Did he read a lot? "I read the newspaper some," he replied, "but I watch TV, too," he was quick to add.

Television, of course, has been vilified and demonized, charged with hastening the decline of civilization. Newton Minnow famously called it a "vast wasteland," while Jerry Mander famously wrote four arguments for its elimination. One of Mander's most cogent points for me is that "you really can't summarize complex information. And...television is a medium of summary or reductionism - it reduces everything to slogans. And that's one criticism of it, that it requires everything to be packaged and reduced and announced in a slogan-type form." I do think he has a point, and that a case can be made that the pervasiveness and the dominance of the medium has also affected a transformation of other mediums. In placing side-by-side written texts from before and after the era of television, one can easily see a trend toward simplicity. Sentences used to be longer and more complex, and in nonfiction, ideas were developed in lengthier and more thorough discourses. And I think few would argue that attention spans are shorter than they were before the invention of television.

But for all that, it's hard to argue that society has gotten dumber over the last 75 years. Granted, some might argue that the recent financial meltdown can be attributed to the intellectual shortcomings of those wielding power, but there is also a lot of evidence that we've gotten smarter. The average IQ score in the U.S. has gone up 22 points from 1932 to 2002. Technology and innovation have continued to move forward. Groups that were underprivileged because of cultural biases have been afforded more opportunities, and in general, the greatest leaps forward in civil rights and moral acceptance of others has occurred during the TV era. And in a particularly fascinating study, television has been lauded as the cause for female empowerment in rural India.

But even as TV is credited for helping females achieve in India, in another part of the word, males are taking a step back. Two weeks ago, an op-ed in the Philadelphia Daily News explored the gender gap in U.S. higher education: "Men make up 42 percent of enrollment in American college-degree programs. At smaller schools, that share can drop to as little as 30 percent. Adult degree-completion programs have seen women outnumbering men for years, accounting for as much as 80 percent of enrollment. Except for in medicine and law, where the sexes are almost equal, women are well outpacing men at all levels and kinds of degrees awarded."

A more extensive analysis was published last year in The Atlantic. Entitled "The End of Men," the article also examined the gender gap in higher education. The author, Hanna Rosin, writes:

Throughout the ’90s, various authors and researchers agonized over why boys seemed to be failing at every level of education, from elementary school on up, and identified various culprits: a misguided feminism that treated normal boys as incipient harassers (Christina Hoff Sommers); different brain chemistry (Michael Gurian); a demanding, verbally focused curriculum that ignored boys’ interests (Richard Whitmire). But again, it’s not all that clear that boys have become more dysfunctional—or have changed in any way. What’s clear is that schools, like the economy, now value the self-control, focus, and verbal aptitude that seem to come more easily to young girls.

Of the three factors listed above, I would put "verbal aptitude" at the top. Language skills, or the ability to listen, talk, and write, are the basis for success in academics, in part because the desire to listen, talk, and write will naturally help one's ability to maintain self-control and focus. So what would give females an advantage in "verbal aptitude"? Jerry Mander wouldn't want me to oversimplify, but I have a theory: I don't think boys are watching enough television.

Being an English teacher, predictably I still think that sitting and reading is the best way to develop an aptitude for language. But I also think that listening to language is also a key in development. Being in different social situations will allow one to build aptitude (something that is probably on the decline as more people seek out virtual spaces to interact). But short of that, I do think that there are advantages to hearing the verbal repartee of fictional characters, the monologues of late night hosts, the interviews on talk shows, or the descriptions of live events offered by sports broadcasters.

But there is one medium that I think would have a negligible effect at best in building verbal aptitude, and it happens to be a medium that is becoming dominant with young males of this generation: video games. Video games are being blamed for social maladies such as obesity and desensitization to violence, but I wonder if the most pernicious effect is one that is under the radar. Maybe we won't know for another 75 years. If a 98-year-old in the year 2086 attributes his sharpness and mental clarity to video games, I'll admit that I was wrong.


Blogger ~~ Sandy said...

:) insightful - yet funny!
And I agree, video games do not encourage enough verbal interaction and do have a tendency to cause erosion of the intelectual landscape.
I was a "mean mommy" - my kids didn't grow up with video games. I didn't bend to the whine of "but everyone else has them!" Once they were old enough to work, they did buy their own systems. But by then, the die was cast - they are all voracious readers!

5:58 PM  

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