By Richard Worzel
Every once in a while a development strikes me as truly strange, partly for its own sake, but mostly because other people don’t seem to be taking much notice of it. One such development is the speed with which boys seem to be falling behind girls in our society, especially in education. For several years now, there have been discussions and articles about how boys seem to struggle academically more than they have in the past and falling behind girls in achievement. Reading such articles has caused me to pause and wonder why.
Then I started to hear that enrollment in post-secondary institutions by women was now much greater than enrollment by men. For example, when my son began studying genetic engineering and molecular biology in university, he said that there were four girls for every boy in his classes. After a hiatus, he’s now going back to university for a graduate degree and says that there are now six women for every man in the undergraduate classes he once took.
If you look at colleges and universities across North America, it is quite startling to find that women not only form a majority of students at the post-secondary level, but their numbers are staggeringly greater than their male counterparts. Today, there are approximately 50% more women going into post-secondary studies than men in North America. The number of women in fields that traditionally had mostly male students is increasing. In some fields, like veterinary science, women make up about 90% of new enrollment. When I considered these statistics, I was stunned by two things: first, that they were happening and second, that the problem attracted so little attention. From my perspective as a futurist, this constitutes an Earth-shaking shift, but no one seemed to be noticing. Moreover, I didn’t know why it was happening and the only explanation I could offer was the gradual improvement in the status of women. However, I found this explanation, which is undoubtedly true, to be grossly insufficient to explain what the heck was going on with men.
Then I read an article in the Globe & Mail, published on Saturday, September 20, 2008, Humanity at Risk: Are the Males Going First and lots of pieces fell into place. One reason there are less men in post-secondary education is that males are under attack by the biosphere we have created. Let me explain by starting with a conclusion by one of the first researchers to address this issue, Dr. Theo Colborn Professor of Zoology at the University of Florida, Gainesville and President of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX). She is concerned this attack on males may pose the greatest long-term threat to society exceeding even that of climate change. Yet, how much do you know about this?
Dr. Colborn is also an environmental analyst and is concerned that synthetic chemicals, man-made and I use the sexist term deliberately here, may interfere with the normal functioning of our hormonal systems. Specifically, endocrine (hormone) disruption can occur when women are exposed to common synthetic chemicals and pass it to their fetuses. Recently, in Endocrine Disruption Overview: Are Males at Risk? Dr. Colborn expresses her concern that these chemicals may affect males more profoundly than females. When she first started discussing this issue back in the mid-1990s, it sounded either trivial or alarmist, or both. However, she points out that the number of boys affected by attention-deficit disorders and hyperactivity disorders is two to four times the number of girls so affected. She believes this may be the primary explanation of why female enrollment in post-secondary education is dramatically greater than that of men because men are cognitively and behaviourally impaired by the chemicals.
Although it’s unclear as to why males are more affected than females, other researchers have found similarities in their studies that point to the environment as the cause. Dr. Shanna Swan, Professor of Environmental Medicine and Director for the Center for Reproductive Epidemiology at the University of Rochester, has found that the sperm count of healthy young men in rural Columbia was half that of their counterparts in American cities, possibly because of the pesticides used on farms. Dr. Thomas Travison of the New England Research Institute theorizes that endocrine disruptors in the environment could have detrimental effects on weight, which in turn can affect hormones in males because extra fat cuts levels of testosterone. Similarly, Dr. Devra Davis, of the University of Pittsburgh has found that the U.S. and Japan had 262,000 fewer boys born in a 10-year period than was statistically normal. And 54% more Canadian men had testicular cancer in 2005 than in 1983.
Something is happening to males, but why? In short, humanity is finally showing the effects of decades of dumping chemicals with unknown properties, especially hormone analogs into our environment. Chemicals like Bisphenol A, or BPA, found in plastics like baby bottles and food tins, has the potential to cause prostate abnormalities and other developmental changes linked to sex hormones in men. Phthalates, a family of very common chemicals used to make plastic more pliable and found in almost everything from shower curtains to perfumes can inhibit testosterone synthesis. Preliminary research shows that these chemicals are harming men more than women. Some may say (with a great deal of justification) that this is merely poetic justice, but that won’t help much or provide answers as to why the trend is continuing.
And what has this to do with education? It helps explain one reason why behavioural problems are on the rise in classrooms. An increasing number of boys (and probably girls as well) may be suffering from borderline neurological damage that affects their cognition and behaviour. But the bigger issue is what do we do about it? From a societal point of view, we should mend our ways by stopping the dumping of toxins, particularly suspected neurotoxins and synthetic hormones into our air, soil, and water. That may be difficult because we have become accustomed to developing new compounds to solve specific problems without considering the consequences of their release into the biosphere. There are very simple things we can do, like return all drugs, pharmaceuticals, and over-the-counter remedies to your local drugstore for appropriate disposal. Do not flush them down the toilet because you will be transferring chemicals that are specifically designed to affect the human body into the water cycle. Likewise, do not pour oil, paints, or other household compounds down storm sewers or drains and try to use biodegradable household cleaners.
From an educational point of view, we need to educate our communities and ourselves. Look for new information on these issues and pass it on to the parents of your students by forwarding articles to them and providing references they can pursue. Make recommendations about how parents can safeguard themselves and their children against the toxins based on the research available. Make it a public health issue in your community by raising the issue with your ministries of education and health and elected officials. School boards need to recognize that cognitive and classroom behavioural problems are widespread, continuing, and not caused by parental negligence. Boards need to look for ways to help children who are challenged in this way. This is particularly important because disruptive behaviour affects not only the children themselves, but also all children in the classroom. If Dr. Colborn is right and humans, particularly males, are under attack by these toxins, then we need to increase our understanding of the problem, assess its effects on the performance of students and teachers and come up with strategies to deal with it.
Ignoring this issue or pretending it isn’t a problem for educators is as responsible as ignoring a flu epidemic or food poisoning in schools, except this issue has more serious dire long-term consequences.
Richard Worzel is Canada’s leading futurist, the author of six best-selling books, and one of the most sought-after professional speakers in the country. He volunteers his time to speak to high school students for free, as his travel schedule permits. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Humanity at risk: Are the Males Going First? By Martin Mittelstaedt, Globe and Mail, September 20, 2008