Education in most of what we’d call the western world is failing. They’re failing boys. At least it seems that way…

You would think that a Google search for “authorized textbooks for BC schools” would turn up an updated list of materials. Nope. The information seems buried or non-existent. Strange. In a frustrating twist of irony, there’s a list of about 80 titles from 1890. Why is it so difficult to find a list of textbooks used to teach our young citizens? Gender in education is a hot potato. In Canada, public education is a prescription written by each province, but the prescription has unintended adverse effects – it’s hurting half the classroom population – boys. Or is it?

“Anne of Green Gables, the Canadian classic about a red-haired orphan girl and darling of English teachers everywhere, is not only a fine book, it’s also a great way to turn boys off literature.” So wrote Kate Hammer, education reporter for The Globe & Mail back in October of 2010. Hence the Google search for textbooks. Text books may be a factor, but there is more to it than that according to Statistics Canada’s – Youth In Transition Survey, by the time children are 15 years old, only 60% of parents expected their sons to attend university, whereas almost 70% of parents expected their daughters to attend university. There was obviously something in the first ten years of childhood education to cause such a disparity of expectations. Or was there some machination in society that caused parents to have a different perspective?

The graph shows that some phenomenon began to influence female enrolment levels around 1975 and they overtook men around 1977/78 for the first time ever. In 1971, there was about 29% more males than females enrolled in higher education. By the end of the 90’s the trend had flipped over, with 13% more females engaged in higher education. That trend has continued – today (2012) women are enrolled in higher education by about 25% more than men.

Something has happened with the education of boys as evidenced in the postsecondary enrolment graph. What went wrong? Are females more academically inclined? Males and females are essentially evenly split in the national population at an age where they would traditionally enrol in higher education, with males actually representing a slightly higher percentage. Why would that statistic not be reflected in the graph above?

More than a few people have claimed that primary education assigns great weight to learning styles that are more common in girls – i.e., sitting still, focusing, verbal interaction, and stories. Naturally, if this is the case, it puts girls (and boys with these styles), at an advantage, giving them more positive feedback. The argument runs along the lines that the classrooms have been gradually set up to conform to the female brain. The argument asserts that boys and girls that are tactile and visual learners are not given the same opportunities to learn through their stronger learning preferences, nor are they rewarded. Advocates of, ‘teaching based on learning style’ claim that children, especially boys, with a kinesthetic learning style are discriminated against by a system that refuses to adapt. Those that feel a compulsion to, ‘move around’ in order to learn, can be labelled as having a ‘behavioural’ problem or having a learning disability. Hence, we’re introduced to sedation with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) drugs, like Ritalin and Adderall, chemical name – Methylphenidate Hydrochloride, a central nervous system drug.

However, according to a report published in the journal, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, by Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer and Robert Bjork in (2009),  there was significant doubt that students benefit from catered learning style assessments. The group of researchers concluded that there are “

[…] only a few fragmentary and unconvincing pieces of evidence that meet this standard, [of learning style assessments] and we therefore conclude that the literature fails to provide adequate support for applying learning-style assessments in school settings.” If what they have reported is proven, then the current education system is ‘off the hook’ in terms of alienating boys from higher education. The benefit is to companies like Shire plc, which holds the patent on Adderall, and Novartis, which holds the patent on Ritalin – the drugs of choice for ADHD. It’s been reported by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, that the number of children diagnosed with ADHD had increased from 4.4 million to 5 million between 2002 and 2010. Back in 1994 prescriptions had risen to 2 million and were doubling every two years. Some contention was raised regarding the rapid growth in prescriptions being written. There was an advocacy group called Children and Adults with Attention Deficit (CHADD), which had received important funding from CIBA (now Novartis). It was publicly suggested that its advocacy of Ritalin may have constituted a conflict of interest, given that they were funded by the company holding a patent on the drug. According to a Reuters Health Medical News article published on September 15, 2000, a class action lawsuit was filed against Novartis, with the allegation that the company “conspired with the American Psychiatric Association” to create ADHD “to fuel the market” for Ritalin. Novartis denied the charges. The lawsuit was eventually thrown out…

There is an obvious problem that needs to be addressed. Or is there? One feminist, who didn’t want to be named said, “I think many young women are entering higher education in the belief that it constitutes some form of empowerment for us, as it was denied to us in the past, and those males that did go through higher education, when it was more elitist, went on to have successful careers. But higher education is not the key to a higher income any more, it is a profit-making industry and we [women] are getting conned into buying relatively useless education, under the delusion that it is some kind of opportunity-equalizer. Women also still tend to study the lesser career-directed subjects, whereas those men who are going to university are more highly represented in subjects like engineering, computer science, etc, which do lead to high income jobs when they graduate. It might be that there are proportionately less young men going to university these days because they are less gullible.”

Basically, young men continue to study their ‘traditional’ subjects just as they had over previous decades. There is no initiative to get men to flock to ‘new areas’ of study, thus there is a possible explanation as to why 25% more females than males are enrolled in higher education today. It is true in Europe as well. According to a 330 page EU commissioned report titled, The Role of Men In Gender Equality, “Boys and girls predominantly choose typical areas in education (girls: social and care-giving fields of education; boys: engineering, manufacturing and construction).”

A World Bank Report from 2010, noted that almost 87% of primary teachers in America were female in 2009. In 1915, 83% of all Canadian elementary teachers were women. Essentially, women have been our primary teachers for the last 100 years. It is only since 1988 that women represent a majority in postsecondary enrollment, casting doubt on the notion that the female brain is discouraging male education. Considering the idea that women may have ‘inadvertently’ been encouraged to get a degree in anything at all, regardless of its wider social application may put a twist on the interpretation of the raw data, and on wider theories about learning style education initiatives.

The elephant walked into the room sometime around 1980 and it’s getting so big that not even the criminally deceived can ignore it. We just don’t know the nature of the beast – yet.

Statistics Canada does not have the continuous data covering the time span where women overtook men in higher education, and two data sets had to be used and adjusted accordingly. A Statistics Canada employee wrote, “After consulting with my colleague in Education Statistics Division, unfortunately we do not have any specific statistics about enrolment for the years from 1976/1977 up to 1991/1992,  however, we have some related data about full time enrolments and graduates in postsecondary community college programs, 1976/1977 to 1998/1999.”