Losing Our Men

Losing Our Men

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%.

chart for 4-30-14 Click chart to enlarge.

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.

5 Responses to Losing Our Men

  • Al

    Great article on point! This article has pinpointed one of the areas in our society which very little attention is being given. I liken it to the drug epidemic years ago in America, until it affects the WELL TO DO, the powers that be kwill continue to ignore it!!

    • Dr. Scott Paine

      Thanks, Al.

      There’s been plenty of documentation on this issue in the African-American community for a long time. Certainly some of the challenges there reflect distinctive challenges related to the treatment of black males (especially teen and young adult males), as well as other factors that may be more common challenges for segments of African-American communities, but the research I referred to in this blog broadens the issue which, as you note, may lead to broader attention. Late is better than never, but earlier would have been good.

  • […] comments on Wednesday about losing our men deserve some further elaboration. Because the problem is, I believe, tremendously serious. What is […]

  • lynn oliver

    We need to understand how our individual environments and not genetics greatly affect thinking, learning, motivation, and mental health. We also need for Males to understand how very differential treatment from infancy through adulthood is creating the Male crisis that increases greatly as we go down the socioecnomic ladder. It is amazing to me that such differential treatment has not been looked at by the researchers. I imagine there are two reasons:
    1. The belief in genetics has blinded researchers to the great social, environmental causes of learning, motivation and academics.
    2. The present view of average stress sees stress only as occurring in some present situation, event, or work. We need to see how our average stress is made up many layers of past, present, future – experiences, fears, preparations for defense, needs, values of others, a host of unresolved mental work that remains with us we each carry as individuals as an average that takes up real mental energy from thinking, learning, motivation to learn, and affects our mental/emotional health.
    The problem involves two entirely different treatments of Males and Females as early as one year of age and increases in differential treatment. This is creating the growing Male Crisis. The belief Males should be strong allows more aggressive treatment of Males as early as one year, designed to create more layers of agitation, fear, and tension, so they will be prepared to fight, defend, and be tough. This is coupled with much “less” kind, stable, (very little verbal interaction) and less mental/emotional/social support, knowledge, and skills for fear of coddling. It is this more aggressive, less supportive treatment that creates the toughness or maintained, higher average layers of – anger, fear, anxiety, preparation for defense, etc. This remains in the mind as higher average stress that take away real mental energy needed for academics. This increases over time and continued by society from parents, yes teachers, and others in society. This creates more social/emotional distance/distrust of others -parents and other authority figures who have knowledge; lags in communication, lower social vocabulary, poor sentence structure; also higher average stress: more layers of mental agitated conflicts and fears taking away real mental energy that hurt learning and motivation to learn. This also creates more activity due to need for stress relief from their higher average stress. It creates more defensiveness and wariness of others further hindering emotional and social growth. The higher average stress creates higher muscle tension (creating more pressure on the pencil and tighter grip) that hurt writing and motivation to write (hurting form and creating early fatigue). It creates much lag in development due to lack of care creating a learned sense of helplessness in school. This differential treatment continues through adulthood, almost fixing many Males onto roads of failure and escape into more short-term areas of enjoyment. Also society gives Males love and honor (essential needs for self-worth) only on condition of some achievement or status. This was designed to keep Male esteem and feelings of self-worth low to keep them striving and even give their lives in time of war for small measures of love and honor. Males not achieving in school or other are given more ridicule and discipline to make them try harder. Support is not an option for fear of coddling. Many Males thus falling behind in academics then turn their attention toward video games and sports to receive small measures of love and honor not received in the classroom. The belief boys should be strong and the false belief in genetics creates a mental denial of any connection with differential treatment and the lower academics, lower esteem, and other problems, removing all good sense when it comes to raising boys today. I feel there is an almost emotional cannibalism allowed upon Males by society, even young Males who appear weak, all to make them tough.

    • Dr. Scott Paine

      Thank you for the thoughtful response, Ms. Oliver. You offer a lot to think about.

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