05 October, 2011

The "Problem" with Men?

This is a rather disturbing article published in The Atlantic which discusses in a bit more detail that social phenomenon that it seems everyone's been talking about lately. Namely, the "disenfranchisement" of men. The facts and figures, and many of the explanations that this article and others present are all pretty valid. What one finds inevitably lacking is any idea of what to do about it. I understand that it's a complex problem and that there are many factors to be considered. But it seems to me that one of the foremost problems is that no one is talking about the real problem. I'm going to look at three of the major issues/effects of this phenomenon, and try to identify at least one aspect of the underlying problem.

Educational styles:
"Researchers have suggested any number of solutions. A movement is growing for more all-boys schools and classes, and for respecting the individual learning styles of boys. Some people think that boys should be able to walk around in class, or take more time on tests, or have tests and books that cater to their interests. In their desperation to reach out to boys, some colleges have formed football teams and started engineering programs. Most of these special accommodations sound very much like the kind of affirmative action proposed for women over the years—which in itself is an alarming flip." 
 The author is right to call the flip "alarming." Such tactics seem to invite a pendulum model of social empowerment (for lack of a better word). First you have women fighting their way into an all-male workforce, then a brief moment of equilibrium, and now men are the ones having to fight for every inch. Once you have a sort of affirmative action singling out men for assistance, you're going to get more and more of them in the workforce as employers hire and then over-hire. And then it's back to square one, with women now facing the problems and men on the brink of being back in exactly the same boat. It's one of the fundamental problems with affirmative action of any sort (other than the fact that it far too often excludes from consideration more highly qualified job candidates and students simply because they happen to be part of the "privileged majority"--never a way to run an efficient, effective society); it may help to fix one social problem, but goes right ahead and creates more in doing so.

Then there's a key historical consideration. Men were always taught this way. By "this way" I mean purely in the mechanical sense: sitting in a classroom, at desks, etc. I respect what education specialists and child psychologists can tell us about how a child learns best, and I do think that's had some positive effect on the classroom since the 1800s. The problem is that, rather as in the affirmative action case, a problem is validly identified and the solution taken way too far. Look back at education in the 1800s, read letters written by the average college-educated Civil War soldier; look back even further to Harvard and Yale back when they were attended by prospective colonial preachers; or even glance over the records of British boarding schools and the American Catholic school (maligned as it is) of the 1940s. Guys sat in classrooms. The discipline forcing them to be quiet and still was much more strict. They had arguably less opportunity for sports, although those that did exist were usually very popular. Now take a look at what they were required to know in the 1860s just to get into Harvard.

My point is that whatever we may understand about male psychology now--that boys need more activity, that they are less naturally inclined to focus on reading than girls--male success has never been historically dependent upon schools pandering to them. A few hours of class, a few hours of homework required discipline, sure, as you can see whenever you have the classic case (literary and historical) of the "wayward son" who flunks out of school and does poorly in everything because of his inability to work hard. But boys were still able to get out, to exercise, to roughhouse. And they usually succeeded, either moderately or brilliantly depending on intellectual capacities, but either way you did not have a similar phenomenon of only the rare, very clever, very quiet bookworm succeeding in academics (I say "only" very provisionally, because well-disciplined boys are another, almost invariable, exception).

I do admit that discipline in the classroom may not entirely solve the problem. There's a job shortage generally, and someone is going to be out of work. Back in the day it's true that higher education was more confined to the upper classes; that is, you could work your way into Harvard if you were a very clever young man from a poorer family, but no one expected that of you. There were always other jobs to take if you weren't inclined academically. Now however, traditionally male blue-collar jobs are increasingly rare, so men who really do need something more active are left with fewer and fewer options.

I have only one comment regarding that, and it's a provisional one. When talking about "class divisions and education," let's recall that for the upper middle class, education wasn't so voluntary. The blue-collar job solution could work, especially in America. But usually that was if you were totally inept in school. In general, if you came from a certain background there was little discrimination based on ability and inclination. You had to go through it and that was that. Even the wilder sort who ended up an officer in the British Army and would be sent to some colonial outpost was at least required to go through a public or private school. And those standards, as evidenced by the Harvard entrance exam previously cited (as well as in literature, letters, etc) were quite a lot higher than our public high school standards.

In short, I'm inclined to see the "men aren't educated" phenomenon as something that should be addressed by teaching young men and boys how to be self-disciplined. Teaching them that there's nothing emasculating about sitting down and controlling their understandable desire to play guns and compete. That by doing so, they'll compete even better in the long term. That later on, by the time they're college graduates, they'll already have achievements of which they can truly be proud, and will be on the road to more. In short, the response is to move away from the culture of instant gratification. We need to stop encouraging kids (both girls and boys, because believe me, the single biggest reason girls do better in school now is that it's not as much of a struggle against their natural inclinations) to go for what they want, when they want, no matter how inappropriate or unhealthy it may be. We need a renewed ability to value some things above others. And even in a totally secular society, surely we can return at least to the conviction that some behaviors really are self-destructive in the long term, while others are constructive?

Marriage and Relationships
"Over the years, researchers have proposed different theories to explain the erosion of marriage in the lower classes: the rise of welfare, or the disappearance of work and thus of marriageable men. But Edin thinks the most compelling theory is that marriage has disappeared because women are setting the terms—and setting them too high for the men around them to reach. “I want that white-picket-fence dream,” one woman told Edin, and the men she knew just didn’t measure up, so she had become her own one-woman mother/father/nurturer/provider. The whole country’s future could look much as the present does for many lower-class African Americans: the mothers pull themselves up, but the men don’t follow. First-generation college-educated white women may join their black counterparts in a new kind of middle class, where marriage is increasingly rare. "
While one knee-jerk response to the phenomenon of more and more men being single because of women being more and more picky is to blame "the feminists,"  just the opposite seems to be the case. Another phenomenon that's turning the heads of journalists and cultural critics in all branches of the media is that of women (yes, the same women taking on increasingly high-paying, high-profile jobs)  are becoming more and more conservative in their outlooks on family life. They usually want families, want monogamous relationships, and want to be able to spend time raising their kids. Moreover, I can tell you from personal experience that the desire to date and marry a man with at least a comparable level of education doesn't stem from academic snobbery. Nearly every college-aged woman I've talked to has the same concerns I did--before meeting my very well-educated, well-mannered, and self-disciplined doctor-to-be boyfriend. Namely, we jolly well don't want to have to dumb down our conversations so that our husbands/boyfriends can understand them! How would that be for equality of the sexes? Thanks a lot, you wonderful old 1970s-era feminists...you made us into the bad guys, put us into the uncomfortable once-male role of occasionally having to settle for a ditz (the male equivalent, of course). It's no wonder that some women are preferring to remain single!

The Male Role Model (Or Lack Thereof):

"American pop culture keeps producing endless variations on the omega male, who ranks even below the beta in the wolf pack. This often-unemployed, romantically challenged loser can show up as a perpetual adolescent (in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up or The 40-Year-Old Virgin), or a charmless misanthrope (in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg), or a happy couch potato (in a Bud Light commercial). He can be sweet, bitter, nostalgic, or cynical, but he cannot figure out how to be a man. “We call each other ‘man,’” says Ben Stiller’s character in Greenberg, “but it’s a joke. It’s like imitating other people.”"

There's another concern that causes women to "raise the bar too high," as the author puts it. Let's imagine for a moment that the educational gap would not have serious ramifications on any relationship. What are women who want a monogamous relationship and healthy, well-nurtured children going to be looking for? A bum who sits around and plays video games because school is "too boring" or "not cool"? Or what about the "sweet" one, whose inability to be assertive ensures that he'll start out at the bottom and stay at the bottom?

I very much understand that not all men without jobs are "bums," nor just "sweet and unassertive" as I rather harshly put it. But there's an age-based distinction to consider here. On the one hand, you have your unfortunate victims of the economic crisis, the blue-collar worker who is now jobless; usually he wants to support his family, but lacks the means. They tend to be older though. Young people getting into the American blue-collar workforce isn't quite unheard of yet, but the number is small enough to make that group statistically negligible for my purposes.

Guys my age and a little older usually fall into a few very distinct categories. There's the pretty much successful guy, who faces obstacles both in getting into college and in getting a job because of affirmative action, but who realizes that education is key to succeeding in this country at this time, and so gets one. Then gets a job. It may take him longer to get to that point (immaturity resulting from bad examples in school is one primary cause, I think; then also the affirmative action thing); he may or may not have a brilliant transcript. But either way, he either has gotten there or is getting there. Or even if he's forced to live with his parents because of the current economic crisis, he's usually doing something constructive with his life. There were lots of guys like this at my school. But on the whole, you don't meet that sort very often. They're the exceptions now. The ones who have something of a character; as I've said before, "values systems" nowadays are often vague and contradictory, but at least on the practical level of getting you somewhere in life they tend to be similar.

Then there's the type one sees much more often. The type I saw all the time while working at the library. This sort is usually lucky to finish high school. But he doesn't even care much if he doesn't. He's usually characterized by exactly one "skill", which he shows off to his friends ad nauseam (at least from the perspective of the bored librarian who's seen it a million times). The skill might be:
  1. knowledge of manga and anime
  2. computer gaming
  3. skateboarding
(There might be others...I don't think I've encountered one.) He usually focuses on impressing his female friends and fighting with his male friends for dominance if they happen to share a "skill". He usually "hangs out" with a younger girl or three and gets at least one of them pregnant. I have seen exactly one of them not abandon the mother and child.

This sort is the real victim of our anti-masculine culture. What one sees here is very palpably the result of a lack of male role models. The dead giveaway is that these guys are always modeling themselves after someone, usually an action hero, either from comic books or movies. The gamers often go so far as to allow their own identity to be consumed by that of the online character, a character who is "heroic" by some perverted standard, who has the ability to go out and fight battles, and who usually (at least in many role playing games)  actually has an older, male mentor of some sort to guide him. When I say "consumed," I mean it. The violence with which the gamers will defend their right to stay online and keep playing is astonishing; knives have been pulled over this in our library--and I come from a town of 15,000. Even when it doesn't go that far, trying to get the gamer to talk about anything other than his virtual reality is nearly impossible. He will try to impress girls not with anything he's done, but with his feats of virtual heroism.

Of course, mixed in with the gamers, skateboarders, and anime fans (and many other reincarnations of the same basic pattern: skill-focused to fill the gap left by the absent role model) is the sweet-but-helpless guy. This is the one that I really feel for. The more aggressive ones are usually acting out on all of their worst tendencies to in response to their lack. It's understandable, but not at all admirable. The gentler sort of guy nowadays is more sensitive to the way his actions affect other people, which leads him to eschew the same sort of dominance-seeking, "I'm a  Man so I am The Best and can do whatever I want" attitude and behaviors of others. For him, being left without a role model doesn't mean inventing his own adolescent, angst-driven version of what it is to be a man. It means that he sees the aggressiveness and thoughtless behavior of other guys his age and thinks that that's what it means to be masculine. So he avoids it like the plague. He's utterly unassertive, utterly passive. He allows himself to be walked over, and even kind of puts himself in other people's way, seemingly for that very purpose. He never even tries to compete, because competition is what the "bad kids" do.

With this being the case, again, how can one blame women for "setting the bar high"? Not only is the conversation inequality a problem; it's more than a little likely that an enormous percentage of guys who do not have either a good education or a good job (or both) are extremely flawed. They rarely will have the confidence or the genuine humility that it takes to be a good husband and father: the humility that comes of having been taught what one knows, and the confidence that it takes to teach one's children the same.

One good thing that came (obliquely) out of feminism is the recognition that women can't, despite their natural desire to do so, fix a bad character. No one can do that but the person who needs to change, once he has recognized that need. Setting the bar high in terms of what one is willing to accept in marriage is partly an offshoot of that, then. We know that the aggressive adolescent won't change his behavior unless he's had a change of heart; we know that the gentle doormat won't start standing up for himself until he believes it's okay to do so.

Women are increasingly realizing that marital security, children, and a loving husband aren't the nefarious traps of the oppressive bourgeois male that radical feminists had portrayed them as being. The problem is that now, in the wake of political and social changes advocated by feminists and actuated by both men and women of the years between 1960 and 1980, we have a society in moral crisis. Women have escaped some of the worst effects of those years; after all, when marriages broke up, kids usually at least had the mother to look up to as a role model.

But for boys and young men now, the father is all too often absent entirely. And if he's not absent, the particularly radical (and particularly unintelligent)  brand of feminism that has been attacking the schools for decades (without realizing that the pendulum has been swinging the other way for almost 20 years now), does its best to make him absent for the 6 or 7 hours a day the boy is at school. Popular media then does its best to discredit the father with its seductive (and yes, I use the word intentionally) surrogate figures, which make Hollywood et al. rich off the teenage male crowd, but which pervert young boys' understanding of what it is to be masculine. No longer is the father who works hard, stays faithful to his wife, protects and loves his kids a "hero". No, to be a hero you need three things: 1.) abs, 2.) biceps, and 3.) skills. Plus plenty of disposable women.

So to go back to the opening point: what are we to do? Reintroduce values? Extol positive role models who can help boys see that instant gratification is not the way to live life and that heroism requires more than a superficial "skill"? Yes, I think. How one would go about that is beyond me, however. It can be done on a family-by-family basis, but that requires being boldly counter-cultural. And then the parents must hope that once the kid is out on his own, he'll have the strength of character to continue being counter-cultural.

Either way, solutions like "reversed affirmative action," new classroom strategies, or even that of women becoming less "picky" aren't going to solve anything in the long term. Like so many other problems in our society, this one's a moral problem, and it won't ultimately change unless individuals make the right choices.


Greg Piv said...

I imagine this is why so many private, all-boys high schools have sprung up around my hometown. The parents understood the issues that were creeping up on society, and wanted to make sure their sons avoided them.

Did some have a huge interest in video games? Yes, but these ones did fine; the school required them to do well (and they were usually intelligent anyways), and provided courses, teachers, and extracurricular activities to channel that interest into something more productive. Instead of being solely entertained by the new technology, they were the ones doing the entertaining, the program writing, and gaining a better overall understanding of computers.

I imagine that my high school was one of the top five schools for young men in the area, and the folks in charge used the traditional approach to the classroom, and, perhaps more importantly, a refusal to compromise on ethics and morality.

Would boys be boys? Of course, but the goal was to try imbuing in them a sort of restraint, or at least the knowledge of why some things they were doing was wrong. I believe that responsibility cannot be developed without some sort of grounding in morality. A person can attain success, but somehow his/her life is going to be compromised in one area or another if the spiritual and ethical side remains fallow.

That's all I got. lol

Therese said...

Actually, Greg, your school was one of the models I had in the back of my mind when I was talking about the education aspect. It does seem like a good private school can do a phenomenal job of combating the cultural tendency towards laziness and directionless-ness.

And the video games thing is a good example. Yes, you can absolutely be a good citizen and like video games...but as you say, there's a big difference between being "solely entertained by the new technology" and channeling that interest in a productive way.

Deniz Bevan said...

Hear hear! What's also interesting is that most people won't talk about this issue in these terms at all - it seems to be easier for the media and school boards to endlessly discuss 'hoe to change the schooling model' than to ever suggest that other factors might be at work.