A piece by David Leonhardt in Tuesday’s New York Times, summarizing work done by Thomas A. Diprete and Claudia Buchmann and published by the self-described centrist Washington think tank called Third Way, both intrigued me and resonated with a concern I have had for a number of years. The concern, in a nutshell, is that we are losing our men.
I don’t mean that they are literally “lost,” disappearing into some Earth-bound black hole. But if you haven’t had the chance to do so in a while, take a stroll on nearly any college campus in America before final exams and summer break empty the quads and the courtyards, and you’ll notice that . . . well, there just aren’t all that many young men there.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 43.3% of undergrads at U.S. colleges and universities in 2011 were males. By 2021, due to a much more rapid expected rise in female college enrollment than male college enrollment, that percentage is projected to drop to just over 40%.
The great good news behind this trend is that women have overcome the range of economic and social obstacles that kept them from pursuing a college education in the decades before the 1970s. By the time I stood in front of my first classroom as a college instructor in the early 1980s, the typical undergraduate class had slightly more women in it than men.
But while women have grasped the opportunity presented by a higher education in steadily increasing numbers, the growth in enrollment for men has been very modest. Up to a point, when women were overcoming those barriers, that differential was to be expected, even desired. Now, however, it raises serious concerns.
Diprete and Buchmann’s research points to a problem early in education, that we are “losing” our boys by the time they get to middle school. In other words, it’s not about college at all; it’s about elementary education and early childhood socialization.
In another era, where formal education might not be as important to securing and retaining a steady job with a decent income, perhaps the problem many boys had with focusing on school didn’t matter as much.
But in an age where the creation, management and transmission of information increasingly defines the realm of economic opportunity, that model simply doesn’t work anymore.
This is not a plea to stop doing the good things we have done, as a society, for women . . . and certainly not a wish that the clock would be turned back against the good things women have done for themselves by pursuing an education. And it’s not to suggest that there isn’t more work to do.
It is a plea to recognize that we, as a society, also have work to do for men. We are doing a remarkably poor job of showing boys and young men what it is to be a man. Compare the range of role models popular culture presents to boys and adolescent males, and the images of what a “man” is like that are most often found in popular media, and you’ll see my point.
I’m not sure what we need to do, but I am certain of one thing. Diprete and Buchmann have documented, among other forces, the effect of the absence of a positive father figure in young boys’ lives. The real father figure that not only isn’t often represented in popular media, but can’t be replaced by a character on a screen.
Gentleman . . . this one’s on us.