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Novelist and broadcaster David Gilmour seen in his home in Toronto. March 29, 2005 (Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail)
Novelist and broadcaster David Gilmour seen in his home in Toronto. March 29, 2005 (Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail)

Tabatha Southey

Universities becoming feminized? Get real, guys Add to ...

To hear some people tell it, David Gilmour is the last bastion of testosterone in academia.

Mr. Gilmour made headlines last week when, during an interview with Hazlitt magazine, he said he was invited to teach a course at the University of Toronto, where “you have to have a doctorate to teach” (as with most universities, you don’t), but accepted on the condition that he teach only “the people that I truly, truly love,” none of whom “happen to be Chinese, or women” because “I don’t love women writers enough to teach them.”

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“I’m a middle-aged writer and I’m very interested in the middle-aged writer’s experience and that’s a subject I feel deeply and can speak passionately about,” Mr. Gilmour, 63, said in a subsequent interview, failing to understand the difference between a university lecture, in which one is professionally and ethically obligated to provide a representative sample of the subject one claims to be offering (he teaches Love, Sex and Death in Short Fiction), and a TED Talk.

This is less about what the man teaches than what he said about what he teaches. A case could be made that gender is irrelevant and Mr. Gilmour’s syllabus is representative of the subject offered, but that case wasn’t made.

I imagine Mr. Gilmour intended bravado – to shock, bad-boy-style – and that’s sad because he sounded so old. Short of walking into a conversation, sandblasting the brick and installing track lighting, there is no surer way to announce one is from the 1980s than to mount an assault on “political correctness,” the contemporary phrase for which is “not being a jackass.”

Mr. Gilmour further dated himself by insisting that his students, they of the porn-fed generation, are “shocked out of their pants” by Henry Miller, a notion that seemed to delight him. I wonder if some of those students are simply disinterested – perhaps surreptitiously watching people have sex on their iPhones.

Anyone panicking that courses on minority and women writers vastly outnumber guy-guy writer courses should consult U of T’s course calendar. There’s no Bench Press or Literary Press? Dilemma of the Manly Man Writer offered (courses are mainly organized by era, genre and geography), but Spenser, Chaucer, Milton, Swift and Pope courses are there. Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Roth make regular, unpicketed, appearances.

I credit men more than to suggest this is why male students, as some fuss, are not virtually extinct in the humanities. Men aren’t bolting as a result of the emasculation of the canon – a fictional phenomenon worried about by those without access to said course calendar. In fact, the seventies bubble having popped, humanities is studied at virtually the same rates now as in the fifties, and if author gender inversely determined enrolment, then English departments must teach nothing but Cormac McCarthy: The demographic leaving the humanities, the bubble bursters, have largely been women – edging their way into the sciences. I guess that’s where all the Jeanette Winterson is taught, and you know how girls are.

If testosterone-stoked men are avoiding higher education because universities have too many young women and not enough old guys teaching Hemingway, this lends credence to the occasionally floated hypothesis that an educational gender gap exists because men are inherently less intelligent than women. I reject this theory and not just because it’s unlikely that men suddenly got stupid 40 years ago, when the gap emerged.

Both men and women are now attending university in greater numbers – women are just doing so in greater, greater numbers. And a study by economics professors Louis N. Christofides, Michael Hoy and Ling Yang, The Gender Imbalance in Participation in Canadian Universities (1977-2005), suggests both sexes are doing the sensible thing.

They conclude that more women are at university because it offers a better return on investment than men’s education – not because women earn more than men upon graduation (they don’t), but because men pay a greater opportunity cost in attending university. Men have other well-paying options – construction for example – and men aren’t stupid.

Men aren’t abandoning university because education has been feminized. Were that the case, this gender imbalance wouldn’t be occurring throughout the developed world – where women’s levels of activism, political participation and dedication to the works of Isak Dinesen vary.

What these countries have in common isn’t an embargo on Philip Roth and an atmosphere in which Michel Houellebecq can be taught only in the college catacombs, but, logic suggests, and studies conclude, birth control. The opportunity cost of higher education for women used to be not having sex, and we’re not stupid, either. I know what I’ve always preferred to Dickens.

Follow on Twitter: @TabathaSouthey

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