“As a busily growing animal, I am scatterbrained and entirely lacking in mental application. Having no desire at present to expend my precious energies upon the pursuit of knowledge, I shall not make the slightest attempt to assist you in your attempts to impart it. If you can capture my unwilling attention and goad me by stern measures into the requisite activity, I shall dislike you intensely, but I shall respect you. If you fail, I shall regard you with the contempt you deserve, and probably do my best, in a jolly, high-spirited way, to make your life a hell upon earth. And what could be fairer than that?” – Ian Hay, Housemaster
Being a man is tough. Becoming a man is tougher.
In the last decade, numerous articles, books, and online commentaries have addressed the subject of the adolescent male adult. Physically and legally, he is a man; he can grow a beard, buy whiskey, join the Army, and make babies. He can lay pipe, wield a hammer, deal in stocks, sell real estate, and manage a restaurant. He can do all these things and more, yet in some key respects he remains a teenager. He still regards himself as the center of the world, primarily concerned with his own wants and desires. When not working, he dresses as he did in high school. His love of toys and amusements is little changed from the time he was 12. He defines commitment to marriage and children as obligations to be avoided. Duty is not a word in his dictionary.
Concurrent with this social trend are the dismal statistics regarding male education. Males now make up only 43 percent of our nation’s college students, with the balance in some universities having become so lopsided that admissions officers quietly recruit male applicants. With the exception of engineering and mathematics, females dominate graduate-school enrollment. The National Center for Education Statistics recently noted that for the last 27 years the number of female graduate students has exceeded the number of males. Nearly 50 percent of the students admitted to medical and law school are female.
That boys have fallen behind girls in elementary and secondary schools is common knowledge. In 2010 the Center on Education Policy released data showing boys reading at a level ten-percent below that of girls. In the same year the Department of Education concluded that, while all student reading scores are falling, for the last 30 years boys have scored worse on these tests than girls in every age group, every year.
That we are failing to educate boys is apparent to all but the most doctrinaire feminists. In May 2008, when the American Association of University Women disputed any “boys crisis” in education, parents and teachers alike reacted with caustic incredulity. Even at the AAUW’s own website, the report aroused a negative reaction. Typical was the response of Adrianne, a self-described “sad and mad professor and mom,” who summed up the report as “stunningly short-sighted, myopic, and irresponsible.” (U.S. prison administrators, directors of the world’s most populous penal system, would have choked with laughter at the AAUW’s claims, as 1 of every 73 American males is currently incarcerated.)
This decline in male learning and maturity is the result of a 50-year assault on the old virtues of manhood. Uncle Sam has been vanquished by Aunt Samantha and her “nanny state,” whereby government has infantilized both men and women. The widespread use of the Pill and other contraceptives have freed men from the obligations once associated with fatherhood. Forty years of high divorce rates have damaged marriage and created millions of matriarchal households, allowing fathers to evade their duties while simultaneously stripping young men of the example of masculinity and fatherhood. A heavy emphasis on female education, brought about by fears that girls were being denied opportunities available to boys, has made classrooms less friendly to boys, ended most all-male educational institutions, and brought about an attitude of reverse chauvinism. Television and movies—think Seinfeld, The Big Bang Theory, Community, Dumb and Dumber, and the like—have made the bumbling father and adult teenagers models of manhood.
Some academics and writers contend that the alterations in the definition of manhood simply reflect the sea change in our culture. The code of manliness—how antiquated that word sounds, even to those who treasure it—is, these critics argue, superfluous. The manly virtues that once carried men across oceans in tiny ships, and soldiers into battle, no longer serve a purpose. Technology, social safety nets, sexual equality, a kinder and gentler society: These are replacing the masculine attributes of independence, hard work, courage, duty, and honor. These same critics make their prophecies self-fulfilling by brushing aside what they view as patriarchal alternatives in education: bringing back trade and vocational classes to high schools, teaching boys in all-male classes or schools, restoring discipline to the classroom.
On a grand scale, the outcome of this war on tradition and manhood looks bleak. The flags come down these days without a shot being fired. You want to open a public school in Detroit for young black males, a campus stressing discipline and hard work? No way. You’re discriminating against females. Want to fill the need of young boys for more physical activity? No can do. Insurance costs for playgrounds are prohibitive. Besides, recess takes away the opportunity to teach students that the environment is going to hell and that George Washington was an oppressor. [Read the rest of the article on the Chronicles website.]
This article originally appeared in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. The excerpt here is reprinted with permission.