Boys will be… doofuses?

Educating boys has never been easy. Why have we made it hellishly hard?
Kevin Ryan | Jul 15 2009 | comment  



We men have always been a troublesome lot. Certainly when compared to the women. Recently, however, things are getting dangerously out of control

Mark Penn, the social trend guru, recently reported a slew of statistics which should be cause for great concern. Men are now lagging women in every major category from lifestyle to health, from education to employment. For instance, on the health and lifestyle front, men are involved in twice as many fatal auto accidents as women. Good-bye to all those jokes about women drivers. Currently the US has 1.5 million men in the slammer, a 15 to 1 lead over the fairer sex. We guys are much more likely to be alcoholics and we are ahead in the obesity derby. No surprise, then, that on average women have a five-year lead in life span.

For decades now, feminists have been decrying the salary deferential that men have enjoyed. Perhaps this is so for men in their 40s and 50s, but no longer for the 20-something crowd. The playing field is now level, with the advantage held by the women when it is time to tighten the corporate belt and lay-offs occur. As our recession/depression deepens, bosses are laying off young male employees at a greater rate than young women. This employment data corresponds to staggering statistics showing that across the country girls and young women are dramatically out-schooling their male counterparts. Last September 58 percent of the entering freshman class at the nation’s colleges and universities was female.

However, not only is there a large gap in favor of women’s college attendance, but women go through college faster, with higher grades, more honors and fewer disciplinary setbacks. Currently, they are being admitted to elite graduate business and medical schools in greater numbers. The situation has become so critical that in order to have a reasonably balanced entering class, many schools have a sub rosa affirmative action program for boys. Oh, how the mighty have fallen!

Slugs, slackers and doofuses

I live in a college town that is awash with professors and when they are asked why girls are doing so much better than boys, the theories and anecdotes pour out. They almost all report that their female students are much more organized. In general, the girls come to all classes; they diligently take notes; they ask questions; and they get their assignments in on time. While male students are often among their brightest students (that is, fully engaged, questioning and creative), by and large, male students are erratic about attendance, listen passively, and turn in tardy and sloppily done assignments. While, in general, girls are friendly, male students are more distant. My academic informants paint a picture of today’s college man as unformed and immature. Lastly, they use terms for these students like slugs, slackers and doofuses.

One answer to this gender gap is that young women have responded to the new educational and employment opportunities. Doors have been opened and they have danced through them. If there is validity in these professorial perceptions, is there any doubt why elite graduate schools are chasing young women as opposed to their traditional targets? Given their work ethic and habits, is there any confusion about why employers are more eager to hire young women and more willing to let male employees go when times get tough? The choice between an alert, pleasant, cooperative and responsible young woman and a disorganized and drowsy-eyed doofus is an easy one.

Why have boys lost their academic and employment leads? Men have always been more trouble, starting wars and going over the edge, but they have usually been the ones to do the “big deeds,” from inventing vaccines to building great businesses. They have been looked to by their womenfolk for leadership and security. Now more and more women are saying, “Why bother!” When young Elvis was asked why he hadn’t married, he famously responded, “Why pay a cow when you can get milk free through a picket fence?” Ladies now are answering that same question with, “Why buy a stubborn, lazy mule when I can drive to town in my own car!”

My professor informants describe their male students as being put off-balance and wrong-footed by the more assertive and self-assured behavior of their female classmates. On another, perhaps related, front, they tell me that while there may be lots of sex on campus, there is little evidence of traditional dates. This situation is, perhaps, why we have the largest percentage of single men in our nation’s history.

Absent Dads

What is behind these statistics and perceptions is a matter of conjecture. That said, let me conjecture away. First, many, many boys are lacking what the psychologists call “role models,” most important of which is a visible, present father. In a very short period since World War II, the shape of the American family has undergone radical surgery and the part most obviously cut away is Dad. A 50 percent divorce rate, plus simple walk-away separations are well known factors in the dismal family landscape.

However, what is adding high octane to the toasting of the family is the fatherless family. Currently in the US, 40 percent of children are born to single mothers. From day one, these usually under-educated and low-skilled women carry the full freight of children-raising. In the Black community, where the out-of-wedlock birth rate is over 70 percent, men refer to the birth mother with the distancing phrase “my baby's mama”. On the other hand, the new 21st century family-fashion among better educated women who haven’t found a suitable mate or don’t want all the aggravation is a trip to the sperm bank for a designer baby.

Further, even in that slimming percent of mom-and-dad homes, Dad is literally and figuratively out of sight. Since dads left the farm for jobs in the factory or the office, he hasn’t been around much and doesn’t have much to do with Junior. Dad has few of the hi-tech skills his son needs to learn to survive in the world of work. When dad finally does come home, what Junior learns from Dad is how to kick back and watch TV.

In these father-absent homes, girls, at least, can watch mom and learn the skills they need to negotiate life’s twists and turns. At home, boys rarely learn their fundamental roles of how to work, how to compete and, all-important, how to protect the women in their lives.

The role of schools

A second conjecture for the decline of boys is schools. In the not-very-distant past, boys encountered strong male figures once they got out of a female-dominated elementary school. Young men saw at first hand male administrators who demanded respect and got it. They submitted themselves to the rigorous physical and mental discipline of athletic coaches. Some of that still exists, but for 20 years the trend has been to turn over educational leadership to women. At the same time secondary schools, in particular, have become large and bureaucratized where personal interest in a boy’s development is rare.

Then there is the feminization of the curriculum, where heroic men like George Washington, Robert E. Lee and “Lucky Lindbergh" have been de-emphasized to make room for Abigail Adams, Sojourner Truth and Carrie Nation. In the English curriculum, tales of noble deeds and derring-do have been replaced with literature featuring heroic women and slightly elevated chic-lit selections. Hardly the stuff to inspire a boy to manhood.

Then there is the form of school itself. While many boys can discipline themselves and challenge their energies into the academic routines of sitting long hours and quietly focusing on a printed page, many, many more cannot. School is a soul-killing bore and they spend their time fidgeting in confining desks desperately waiting for the final bell. Their growing bodies and smouldering minds yearn to be anywhere but their stale classroom. And making it worse, the adults around them continually threaten that they will never succeed, never “amount to anything,” and unless they “shape up and buckle down!”, will never have their very own office cubicle. Few boys have been inspired by a future in the cubicle. Face it. School, as we know it, is a girl’s world.

The pleasure dome of prosperity


My third conjecture for the deterioration of boys is the current culture we have built for them. Not too long ago in the West, before our psychologists invented adolescence and our sociologists discovered the American teenager, a boy’s world was harder and simpler. When he finished an elementary education (comparable in content to today’s high school), he went to work. If he wasn't under the eyes of his farmer or shopkeeper father, he was under the guidance of another adult committed to forming him into a useful and productive individual. If at first he didn’t perform, there were real consequences. In his off hours, if he got drunk or brawled or stole, the community came down on him quickly and severely. His path to manhood was clear and all but a few understood it.

The social world of today’s boy is confusing and pleasure-packed. Every boy wants to grow-up and to succeed, but what those terms mean has become extremely bewildering. Our powerful culture assaults his imagination with images of success: Toby Bryant, Tom Brady, Michael Jackson, James Bond, the handsome guy with all the muscles who the girls lustfully fondle, the wise guy with the quick mouth and fast hands, the guy with the cool wheels. The list is long and confusing. Our mod boy’s head is swimming with false idols and dubious role models. How can he craft his character out of that stuff?

But it is pleasure that is his real nemesis. The materialistic miracles of modern capitalism enable ghetto youth to have more sensual gratification than Louis XIV perched in his lavish Palace of Versailles. The America boy doesn’t know cold or hunger. He is physically cared for by his family or the state until at least 18. Few have work or real responsibilities. For half the days of a year, he goes to school for six hours. As a result, he is awash with free time. These days, the Devil’s workshop is working overtime, pumping out to him myriad paths to pleasure: 100 plus TV channels, iPod delivered chewing gum music and cell phones to ease the loneliness. And then there is the seriously addicting stuff: drugs, no-consequence sex and some of the vilest pornography the world has ever known. In the past, chastity was chosen or socially imposed on boys. Either way, it contributed to his drive to be worthy of a woman and, thus, to raise a family. Now all the pleasures of the flesh are low-hanging fruit, waiting to be plucked. Boys were not built for pleasure, but for adventure and challenges.

Growing up has never been easy. Now we have made it hellishly hard.

Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared on CBS's "This Morning", ABC's "Good Morning America", "The O’Reilly Factor", CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking on character education. He can be reached at kryan@bu.edu. This is the first of a two article on educating boys. The second will make suggestions about how to raise strong boys. 

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