Fixing Men (and Boys)
A student recently shared with me an article that appeared in the New York Times entitled “Teaching Men to Be Emotionally Honest” (Andrew Reiner, April 4, 2016). Here are some “take ways” from the excellent article in bullet points (that I do not claim do justice to the article):
- Some American institutions of higher education are beginning to wake up to the study of male human beings (henceforth simply “males”) including teaching courses on “Men’s Studies” populated mostly by female students. (There have been courses and even majors in “Women’s Studies” in many American universities for a long time. Until recently “Men’s Studies” has been mostly about gay concerns and issues.)
- Some social scientists who study males and teach such courses believe the “decline of men” and the “problem with boys” (labeled “The Boy Crisis” by Newsweek in a cover article) is rooted in (at least American males’) inability to admit weakness which is evidenced by their increasing inability or reluctance as they grow older (beginning in adolescence) to feel and display emotions—especially sadness, fear, sorrow, etc.
- These social scientists indicate that American boys and young men are increasingly falling behind girls and young women in education and the new economy partly, at least, because they cannot bring themselves to admit they need to compete with females—which would admit weakness—and partly, at least, because they cannot display what society now considers normal human emotions.
- These social scientists believe males’ problem is rooted in (what the article does not label as such) “the boy code.” (I am borrowing that phrase from several books I have read about boys and young men and it seems to me to fit what the social scientists reporting on “the decline of men” in this article are saying.) They indicate that American boys are socialized—mainly by their fathers—from a very young age not to cry or show weakness. The author reports on a study (which I have read elsewhere) showing that pre-adolescent and pubescent boys have very strong emotions—including about their friends—but learn quickly in their teen years not to show emotions that are equated by their fathers, older brothers, and peers with weakness.
- Finally here (there’s much more in the article), the perceived solution is to free boys and young men (it may be too late for older men) to be emotional and show emotions including ones associated with dependency, weakness and need.
The author reports that about eighty percent of the students who take the “men’s studies” course that forms the case study for the article are females. The lingering question over the whole article, at least in my mind, is why more male college and university students decline to take a course in “men’s studies?” Females flock into “women’s studies” courses. I’m sure there are many theories and even legitimate reasons, but I will suggest one: Females know that a course in “women’s studies” will be mostly about empowering women; males know that a course in “men’s studies” will be mostly about “fixing men” to be more like women. The article itself hints at this. When confronted with the fact that being more emotional and showing emotions might actually benefit males economically some young males resist anyway. Why? Because they would rather be “manly” than succeed in life.
This is one expression of the “masculine mystique.” Most American boys and men would rather be “manly”—whatever exactly that means—than succeed in life if succeeding in life means being something other than what they perceive “masculine” to be. Any solution to the “problem with males” in American society must take this deeply ingrained typically male attitude into account and not simply ignore it or say to young males “man up!”—insofar as “man up” means (or is perceived by them to mean) “become more like females.” I suspect this phenomenon is somewhat analogous to the resistance many African-Americans feel and express when they perceive that society is telling them to “become more like whites—if you want to succeed in life.” Naturally, understandably, they resist this message even if, in some sense (economically), it is true. Sociologists and educators know this even if they don’t know yet what to do about it. But one strategy has been to show young African-Americans role models who are both successful in life and thoroughly black culturally.
The solution, if one exists, to the “male problem” is not to attempt to “fix males”—especially if that means pressuring them to be more like females (in terms of typical feelings and behaviors)—but to show them examples of “manly men” who are naturally in touch with their emotions and know how to navigate the social world toward success in life without giving up their maleness (as they perceive it) and becoming (even if only in others’ perception) feminine.
There is one other point I wish to make and I am fully aware of how controversial it will be. I believe there is a much-ignored other reason for the undeniable fact that teen boys and young men tend not to show “tender emotions” as easily as females. Of course sociologists will always look for and find sociological explanations such as the “boy code.” But in recent years a new branch of science has emerged—without much public notice—called “socioendocrinology.” It studies the social effects of hormones. One tentative result—at least believed to be the case by some socioendocrinologists—is that there is some truth to the old phrase “testosterone poisoning” insofar as high levels of testosterone tend to correlate with lack of empathy. One has to wonder if the flood of testosterone that affects most boys in their teen years has something to do with the seemingly sudden decrease in the “tender emotions.” If so, then that strengthens my argument (which I have been making here for years!) that society needs to be more realistic about males and stop attempting simply to “fix them” with quick social engineering. What young males probably need is not “fixing” but controlling—in the sense of strong guidance by older males—fathers, older brothers, uncles, grandfathers, mentors, teachers, coaches—reining in their testosterone-driven impulses and showing them how to be “boys becoming men” in the truest and best sense.