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Thomas Mortenson is a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. For a decade, his campaign has been a lonely and frustrating one: convincing educators, politicians, and parents that boys are in trouble. BusinessWeek Working Life Editor Michelle Conlin talked to Mortenson about how the crisis could affect women -- and why addressing the problems with boys in high school is too late. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: About 20 years ago, there was a famous article in Newsweek about how women could pretty much kiss marriage goodbye if they hadn't walked down the altar by the age of 30. Of course, that turned out to be completely false. Much of the research the story was based on was discredited. But you believe that women could be in for store for a marriage squeeze -- a real one. Why?
A: Black women are really the canaries in the coalmine on this. Put simply, I believe white women are headed to where black women are today. If white women want to see the future of what will happen if men aren't brought along through the educational system with them, they should listen to the problems among black women today.
When I make presentations, I can see 95% of the women in the audience nodding to along to this, agreeing with me. I don't think some women -- and some gender feminists -- have fully thought through the idea of what it means to leave a generation of boys behind. And by the time this gender imbalance really hits whites, it will be too late. We're stuck back in the 1960s in terms of producing college-educated men.
Q: Still, you oppose affirmative action for boys in college.
A: Affirmative action in college doesn't get at the causes in the previous 18 years of a boy's life. The problems go all the way back into elementary schools. We need to start there and work our way up. By a time a boy is in high school, it's often too late.
So the answer is not to put a thumb on the scale of admissions to get more boys in. The answer is to use research and training to prepare schoolteachers. To help them create more engaging learning experiences for young boys in the same way we've done with girls.
Q: When did it hit you that something was awry?
A: I've been studying educational data for 30 years. Back when I started in 1970, women were far behind in college continuation rates out of high school. Then in 1990, it hit me. Why hadn't boys made any progress over this period of time? I started looking into it. Nobody else had reported it. Even people who run higher education hadn't been tracking this redistribution of enrollment. So I dug in.
Q: And this isn't just an American problem.
A: It's an issue throughout the industrial world -- women are just beating the pants off guys in college. The move away from a goods-producing economy is just killing men's jobs. But it's creating wonderful opportunities for women. Manufacturing has shrunk from 35% of GDP after World War II to 14% today. Within a decade it will slip to 10%. Then think about agriculture.
Q: Do you agree that women tend to be better-suited for the New Economy?
A: New Economy jobs tend to require communication skills, interpersonal skills. This is a world made for women. So the question in my mind is: How do we design educational experiences for boys that, from the beginning, are engaging and exciting to boys and are geared toward getting them into jobs in the service economy. Health care, business services, even education.
We can't allow boys to think, gee, just because they had fun in high school working on their cars with their hands that they'll be able to make much of a living in their lives. Of course there'll be some manufacturing jobs. But they are fast disappearing to China and South India. These guys that put their lives into the auto plant -- and then it closes -- they simply drop out of the labor force. They're lost.
Q: What would you tell elementary-school teachers?
A: I would get my boys out of the classroom, and we'd be in a field all day long chasing tadpoles and pollywogs and looking at swamp water. I certainly wouldn't have them sit down at a classroom desk and read a book in the first grade. I just don't think we've developed education that's appropriate for boys' learning styles.
We've tried to force this model that works so well for girls onto boys. And we're paying a very steep price.
Q: So what's needed now?
A: When I was growing up and it was thought that girls just couldn't do high-level math, the women's movement took up the cause. They put girls' feet to the fire to learn science and math. Now men need to do the same thing for boys. We need a boys' project.
Q: And women?
A: My belief is that until women decide that the education of boys is a serious issue, nothing is going to happen. Some women are threatened by the issue of raising boys' problems in the educational system because they're fear it will take away from the progress of women. That's not what I'm advocating. What everyone needs to realize is that if boys continue to slide, women will lose too.