Are Men Obsolete? Are Boys in Danger? More on The “Decline of Men” and The “Boy Crisis”
These musings were triggered by some recent articles and blog posts. A December (2013) Time article described a national effort in Sweden to erase gender distinctions that, many men say, is really aimed at erasing masculinity. Another December Time article reported on a scholarly conference held in 2013 that asked “Are Men Obsolete?” A Patheos blogger argued during the same month that society, especially public education, is trying to “emasculate boys” by punishing them just for being boys.
Let me begin by saying that whenever I write on this subject (viz., gender issues) some people, both men and women, accuse me of being part of a “backlash” against feminism and of being “threatened” by the rise of women. Nothing could be farther from the truth, but, of course, I won’t be able to convince them. I’ll just say here that I have for a long time been a promoter of total equality between men and women, boys and girls, in everything. I have been a member of two churches pastored by women and have advocated full equality of women in church, family and society. I am an egalitarian. But that doesn’t commit me to support everything every feminist wants (e.g., gender-neutral language about God) or to oppose everything every non-feminist wants (e.g., male role models especially for boys). I am determined to stay out of the ideological fray over gender and do my best to look at the issues from a common sense point of view.
Common sense and experience tell me that there are gender differences that are not merely social. That is, gender is rooted partly in nature, not just nurture. (Here “gender” will refer to masculinity and femininity while “sex” will refer to biology and physiology. My point is that they are not entirely separable.) For example, I have known small children, toddlers, whose parents have tried very hard to raise them without gender stereotypes—sending them to daycares and pre-schools where boys will be encouraged to play with dolls and girls will be encouraged to play with trucks. And yet, in most cases, the little boys want to play with “heavy machinery” toys and pretend wooden sticks are swords while the girls want to play with dolls and kitchen sets. There are exceptions, of course, but I cannot escape the strong impression that little boys and little girls, overall and in general, are “wired” differently for play. Little boys are also, in general and overall, more “rambunctious” while little girls are, in general and overall, less so. This difference begins almost as soon as they can walk and grows no matter what parents and teachers do or say.
I believe little and big boys’ “rambunctious” tendencies need to be controlled, not erased. Whenever their rambunctiousness impinges on others’ freedom or safety it ought to be curbed by adults. But little and big boys should not be told to be more like girls. Or social engineered to be more like girls. The irony is that society seems to want boys to be more like girls but girls to be more like boys—even in those manners and habits they disdain in boys. Girls are encouraged to join the military and become fighters. Girls are encouraged to engage in very physical, even violent, sports. Girls are encouraged to become aggressive (as they mature) while aggression in boys is treated as a disease to be cured.
I believe boys, in general and overall, are naturally more competitive, goal-driven, aggressive, and constructive (in the sense of building things) than girls. Channeled and governed these tendencies contribute much to society. Treating them as a disease and punishing boys for displaying them in non-violent ways leads only to resentment and acting out—secretly if not openly (remember “Fight Club?”). Boys need outlets for physical energy. Instead, many schools are cancelling recess and requiring boys to sit still and be quiet in the same way most girls can for long periods of time.
Too many schools are punishing boys for being boys and pushing girls to be more like boys—beyond what they naturally want or are comfortable with.
What message do we, as a society, send to boys (I’m thinking here mainly of adolescents who are becoming aware of such things) when academics and scholars suggest that men are “obsolete?” What does “men are obsolete” mean? Well, of course, usually, it doesn’t mean the male sex is obsolete (although in a few cases of extreme feminists it might). It means the masculine gender is obsolete. Men, as men, have nothing distinctive to contribute to society. But always in such discussions women as women still do.
Here’s an example of how this works “on the ground,” so to speak. Like most academics I read The Chronicle of Higher Education and try to keep my pulse on what is happening in American academic life. For the past several years there has been a major “push” to get women into disciplines and professions historically populated mainly by men. One article I read in the Chronicle quoted feminist academics as saying that the profession of engineering, for example, will be improved by having more women engineers. Are the ranks of engineering closed to women? That’s the impression given. Or do few women really want to be engineers? God forbid anyone would suggest such a reason! But my question is this: Why do we never read an article where academics, men or women, argue that disciplines and professions traditionally populated by women should be opened to men because they will be improved by having more men in them? I have never heard anyone makes such a case. Why? The disciplines and professions of nursing, social work, teaching and interior decorating are dominated by women. Is that because their ranks are closed to men or because few men really want to enter those professions? Would those professions be improved by having more men in them? Who is asking such questions—in academic circles? Nobody that I know of.
Now you may be one of those who thinks that academics have no real influence “in the real world.” But you would be wrong. They do. They lead professional societies and university departments and have great influence in, for example, accrediting associations. For years educational accrediting associations have been pushing, if not requiring, schools at all levels to work for women’s rights and inclusion and equality (which I support). But sometimes, and I think too often, some proposals and practices that result are detrimental to boys. Not enough people are noticing that and speaking up about it. Some are, but the movers and shakers of American education are not.
Again, someone will accuse me of “feeling threatened” by the rise of girls and women. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have two daughters and a granddaughter and I am delighted whenever barriers fall that would keep them from doing whatever they want to do. And, at my stage of life and profession, I could not be “threatened” by the rise of women. My concern arises out of an interest in justice. Justice is for boys and young men as well as for girls and young women. And yet our society has not even begun to make the necessary course corrections to do justice to boys and young men. Girls and young women are succeeding at all levels of education while boys and young men are falling behind. There are numerous programs aimed at helping girls and young women and very few aimed at helping boys and young men.
To say that men are obsolete doesn’t hurt me personally or professionally. I’m beyond that. But it hurts my sense of justice—for boys and young men who increasingly don’t know where they belong or fit in society. Many see the social favoritism shown to girls—especially in education and in many businesses—and choose to drop out rather than hide or drop their masculinity.
So what would I like to see? More efforts by educational associations and government entities to recruit men to be teachers. More efforts to help boys and young men succeed in school. Programs developed specifically for boys and young men in schools (there are many for girls and young women). Public messages that indicate that being male is not a sin; it’s okay to be a boy and a man. “Men’s studies” courses and programs in universities and colleges that don’t just cater to gays. Public policies and programs by non-profit organizations to help men live long, healthy lives. Cessation of all punishment of boys in schools just for being boys. (See “The Emasculation of Boys” by Tim Wright at his Patheos blog “Searching for Tom Sawyer” [December 15].) Portrayals of positive masculinity in entertainment. (For those of you who want an example of what I want more of—see the movie “The Way Way Back” in which a troubled fatherless adolescent is mentored by an adult male who is kind and also very masculine.)