Perhaps this explains why American men have taken a demographic plunge in higher education. Men now constitute less than 43 percent of the U.S. college-student population, and receive only 41 percent of new bachelors’ degrees. Similar figures appear throughout the Western world, implying that the emergence of an unschooled male underclass is not only an American problem. In a world where male talent in mathematics and engineering confers significant national advantages in wealth and power, these numbers are portentous indeed.
Disturbing as it is, this pattern is no mystery. Inferior male performance in school is chiefly associated with fatherless families. Among major industrial countries, only Sweden, Norway, and Denmark significantly surpass the U.S. in the female dominance of higher education; these Scandinavian countries also lead in female-headed families. In all of Europe, only Switzerland shows a drastically lower level of fatherlessness, with an 11 percent illegitimacy rate in 2001 as compared with 32 percent in the U.S. and 42 percent in Sweden. And, sure enough, Switzerland displays continued male dominance of higher education, with men constituting around 60 percent of the college-student population.
The ill effects of fatherless families should come as no surprise. Around the globe and throughout human history, mothers left alone have foundered on the challenge of raising and disciplining boys. As I stated in my 1986 book, Men & Marriage, family dissolution in the modern world leads to “a welfare state to take care of the women and children and a police state to handle the teenaged boys.” I might add today that it also entails immigration or outsourcing to do much of society’s work and to support the childless in their old age.
On the police-state side, the decline of men in higher education relates to the 93 percent–male composition of America’s world-leading prison population. As Bill Bennett has pungently observed, America’s prisons are dominated by blacks from the fatherless families that make up close to 80 percent of inner-city households. The Department of Justice estimates that fully 32 percent of all black males will enter state or federal prison during their lifetimes, as compared with less than 6 percent of white males. More than a third of American black men between the ages of 17 and 35 are currently in jail, on probation, or on the lam. In Scandinavian countries, the police are similarly busy with truants. Prison populations there remain radically smaller, but, unlike in the U.S., crime rates are still soaring. Sweden leads Europe with a six-to-tenfold rise in various property crimes and sexual assaults since the 1970s.
Family breakdown drives the ever-expanding police state to extend its webs and ensnare men far beyond the prison population. Beadles from divorce courts, welfare agencies, child-support administrations, and child-abuse constabularies use massive computer surveillance to track the jobs and movements of so-called deadbeat or DNA dads. They treat unmarried or divorced fathers, in Bryce Christensen’s words, as “quasi-criminals, perpetually under corrective supervision.”
As Margaret Mead famously declared, the key social issue in every society is how to deal with the aggressiveness and competitiveness of males. The traditional solution is marriage, which ties men to the future through their children and channels their aggression into supporting their families through competitive success in both education and the workplace. In families that are intact, boys tend to socialize upward toward their fathers and other adult men, such as teachers and coaches, rather than sideways toward the gang and the street. They also tend to readily accept the educational disciplines required by upward mobility. Even today in intact middle- and upper-class families, where fathers usually perform as chief providers, more boys than girls go to college.
The sexual skew in American universities reflects a condition widely reported in anthropological studies: The nuclear family always must compete with polygyny (derived from the Greek for “many women”). Enabling the most powerful men (by whatever relevant measure) to dominate the nubile or childbearing years of several young women, polygyny can be pursued through harems and mistresses or extended over time through a series of divorces and remarriages. Monogamy is egalitarianism in sex; it means one to a customer. When this institution breaks down, it leaves behind an underclass of young men who cannot marry and who are prone to addiction to homosexuality and pornography. It also creates cohorts of abandoned women who are left to struggle with their sons and then grow old alone.
As Swedish economist Assar Lindbeck pointed out in the 1980s, the pattern of family breakdown is fed by the excesses of the welfare state. “Progressive” systems skewed to tax the so-called rich (the top 20 percent of earners) necessarily bear most heavily on intact families with children who do the lion’s share of society’s productive work. Recent data show that the top fifth of households perform some 33 percent of the hours worked, earn roughly 50 percent of the income, and pay 68 percent of federal income and payroll taxes, all while raising most of the boys who pursue higher education. The progressive taxes paid by these families finance programs and institutions such as child support, daycare, job quotas, affirmative action, divorce courts, foster homes, abortion clinics, nursing homes, and cradle-to-grave health care, all of which reduce the unique value of the personal-care functions provided by father-supported families. In this way, state-provided welfare provisions create an anti-family feedback loop in social policy, reducing incentives for families to stay together and creating what Allan Carlson has called a multi-trillion-dollar “lifestyle subsidy” for careerist singles and broken families.
Yet despite the state-assisted breakdown of the nuclear family and the resulting dearth of young men in higher education, males continue to dominate the educational statistics in advanced mathematics (and the math-intensive fields of science and engineering) all around the world. The news may prompt the tenured ladies at Harvard and MIT to burst into tears and summon lawyers to sue God, but the evidence for a biological source of male mathematical superiority is overwhelming. Boys are better at math, and the harder the math the greater the male superiority. Indeed, throughout human history, female mathematicians and engineers have made almost no significant contributions to these fields. The absence of boys in colleges does not mean that women suddenly begin writing most of our leading-edge software programs or designing microchips for our missile defenses. The feminization of the universities simply deprives the economy of the technical skills and competitive energies of new generations of men.
In response, the powerful polygynists in charge of many large global corporations range the world to tap male talent wherever it may be. They tend to find it in Asian universities, such as India’s fiercely meritocratic IIT campuses, where males constitute at least 90 percent of the students. The visible results of this are high-tech outsourcing and immigration. But the roots are nurtured by the breakdown of families, the feminization of American universities, and the flight of boys from them.
Mr. Gilder is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute.