Boys and Men in Crisis
By J. Simpson
A recent article published in the New York Times Magazine raised more than a few eyebrows. Titled “There Was Definitely a Thumb On The Scale To Get Boys,” it unpacks the ongoing gender gap in educational attainment, which has skewed female for decades, resulting in unofficial “affirmative action” programs for boys and men in a bid to get more male engagement on campus. In the process, the findings reveal some interesting, albeit worrisome, ways that identity-based activism is undertaken and discussed in the Western world.
The New York Times Magazine article begins by citing a lighthearted survey circulated through New Orleans’ Tulane University by the matchmaking service Marriage Pact. The survey returned a “friend match,” rather than a long-term love interest for 900 straight women, which is understandable given that Tulane’s incoming Freshman class was nearly two-thirds female in 2021. Rather than an anomaly, this gender ratio is in line with virtually every Ivy League college as well as many state schools. To make matters worse, even when they enroll, men are more likely to drop out of college. The gender gap in educational attainment starts even earlier, where girls outperform boys in reading and writing by the fourth grade. By High School, girls are getting better grades in every subject, including STEM. They’re more likely to take Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes. Girls volunteer more as well as making up more than two-thirds of the Top 10 percent of their class, despite boys and men performing slightly better on standardized testing.
Why are boys checking out en masse from schooling? This question inspired Brookings Institution’s nonresident senior fellow Richard V. Reeves to write a book.
Of Boys and Men
All of these factors are both reflective of and a potential cause for what author and what the Brookings Institution’s nonresident senior fellow Richard V. Reeves terms “male drift.” It’s part of a larger trend of boys and men disengaging with society, leading to underemployment, a decreased likelihood of marriage and children, and an increased likelihood of committing suicide. As a father of young boys, Reeves’ concerns and findings resulted in the book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It, which was named a book of the year in both The Economist and The New Yorker.
Reeves begins by compiling a number of well-known yet still alarming facts and statistics to support his case for “male drift.” Men’s real wages have fallen by 14% since 1979, for example, while women’s earnings have grown. Participation in the workforce has fallen dramatically, as well, with nine million men of prime working age not taking part in the labor force before the COVID-19 pandemic. Men earn 15% fewer Bachelor’s Degrees than women. Men are 3x as likely to take their own lives than women.
He then wades into the fraught territory of trying to explain some of the differences, raising the possibility of drawing ire from all sides. Reeves cites research suggesting that some of the discrepancies may be due to biological differences between young boys and girls as one divisive example. According to Reeves, this is a bipartisan issue, as conservatives tend to focus too much on biology while progressives have a tendency to deny any differences at all. He then posits the influence of what he describes as “a political stalemate on issues of sex and gender,” suggesting that many progressives are too quick to write off problems experienced by boys and men as symptoms of “toxic masculinity.” He takes issue with the conservative stance that a return to traditionalism is the solution to these problems. He then spends some time talking about different demographics and the ways they’re particularly impacted by these issues, especially Black and Latino men.
Part of what makes Of Boys and Men so exceptional is he doesn’t stop at grousing. Too often, many are long on complaints but short on solutions. Reeves lays out a program of action, some of which further illustrate potential causes for boys’ increased disengagement with education. Others are more controversial, despite Reeves’ impassioned defense.
According to Of Boys and Men, some solutions to the “boy crisis” in education include:
- Start school a year later, aka “redshirting”
- Increasing the number of male teachers, especially in K-12
- Increase the number of vocational schools
- Encourage men to get into HEAL professions (Health Care, Education, Administration, Literacy)
The Problem With Redshirting
Reeves’ preferred solution for the gender gap is also his most controversial. Reeves defends his support of holding boys back a year throughout Of Boys and Men, citing both extensive research as well as his own success while raising his three sons. Redshirting has been a popular practice among better-educated and higher-income families for some time. Unfortunately, that fact alone somewhat muddies the waters, making it more difficult to get a clear picture of the impact of holding boys back a year.
Contradictory research suggests that while redshirting can have short-term benefits, those gains quickly dissipate over time. A report conducted by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Southern California in 2006, analyzing 15,000 26-year-olds, found that children who had been redshirted performed worse on 10th-grade tests, were twice as likely to drop out of school, and were less likely to graduate from college. Furthermore, a 2008 review from David Deming, an economist of education at Harvard University, and Susan Dynarski, an education and public policy expert at the University of Michigan, found that students who had been redshirted tend to have lower IQs and earnings as adults. It also increases the likelihood of a child having difficulty relating to their peers or feeling engaged with their studies, if they’re too advanced for their grade.
Other critics have raised concerns that redshirting could further exaggerate existing class and race-based divides. Holding boys back a year means an additional year of childcare outside of public education. Reeves addresses this concern in Of Boys and Men, calling for universal Pre-K education in the United States. That’s another controversial, often partisan political issue, that would need to happen to put Reeves’ policies into practice. Requiring universal changes to the educational and daycare systems makes the changes look utopian and, thus, less likely to happen.
In the public sphere, skeptics are afraid that making redshirting an official policy will further entrench the idea that boys and men simply aren’t as intelligent as girls and women and that they’re inherently more immature, which will further alienate boys from education and learning. Instead of using the broad brush to create policy for every male student, centrists suggest practicing redshirting on a case-by-case basis, giving preference to boys suffering from ADHD or learning disabilities.
Other Potential Causes for “Male Drift”
In an article for The Spectator, Reeves speculates on some other potential causes of the gender gap in educational attainment. He cites research from Laurence Steinberg, an expert on adolescent psychology, from his book, Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, making the semi-obvious assertion that “high-school-aged adolescents make better decisions when they’re calm, well rested, and aware that they’ll be rewarded for making good choices.”
He goes on to talk about the conflicting impulses of adolescence, the sensation-seeking part of our brains versus impulse control, which he compares to the gas and brakes in a car. Boys lag behind girls in impulse control, with the cerebellum coming into full development at age 15 for boys as opposed to age 11 for girls, according to neuroscientist Gokcen Akyurek. Despite increasing evidence in sex-based cognition and behavior, none of these new findings have yet been implemented at the policy level.
Biology is one potential reason why boys and men are disengaging from education. Responsibilities may be another. In the Philippines, for example, only 40% of boys from the poorest households complete secondary education as opposed to 75% from more affluent families according to UNESCO, Boys and men may be facing pressure to support their families and loved ones by working instead of getting a degree. The availability of higher-paying work that doesn’t require a degree is another potential cause of the gender gap in educational attainment.
According to UNESCO, a greater risk of physical bullying may be another cause of failing to engage in school.
Others theorize unfair treatment as another reason boys and men may be checking out of the classroom. There’s growing evidence that many teachers may suffer from gender bias, grading boys more harshly for the same work. To make matters worse, studies show that students are aware of this discrepancy, which may be further contributing to boy’s and men’s cynicism toward education. Further research illustrates that students tend to rise, or fall, to teacher’s expectations of them. At what point do gender biases become self-fulfilling prophecies?
Others blame shifts in public education, in general, over the last few decades as a possible cause for boys falling behind in school. There’s been a dramatic decline in physical activity and even recess in recent decades. The average length of recess times has diminished by 60 minutes per week since 2001. Many activities are restricted, as well, such as running or behavior that’s considered “roughhousing” or “horseplay.” Rising class sizes and an increased emphasis on “teaching to the test” is another theory of why boys are falling behind, as teachers have less time and resources to dedicate to any student. It also limits their autonomy and ability to customize their teaching for individual students, whether it’s working or not.
A lack of certainty in the investment of a college degree may be another contributing factor in male disinterest in education. According to Paul Tough, a researcher who studies inequality in education, reports the startling statistic that the number of Americans who felt that a college degree was very important fell from 74% to 41% between 2009 and 2019. Only a third of Americans have a lot of confidence in higher education. Almost half of American parents report preferring their children not to enroll in college. College enrollment is dropping, too, falling from 18 million undergraduates in 2010 to 15.5 million in 2021. Getting a college degree used to be a sure bet, a fast track to higher earnings and a better life. Now it’s more of a gamble, especially when you factor in intersectional considerations. As far back as the 1980s, the actual wealth benefits for Black and Latino households is close to 0%.
The divide in public opinion on the usefulness of higher education is even starting to have political consequences. 59% of Republicans reported going to college as having a negative impact on society. Furthermore, college students are three times as likely to as liberal or far left than conservative or far right.
Should these trends continue, we run the risk of becoming a society that can no longer communicate. Many of the popular ideas that have gained traction in public discourse in the last decade originate in academia. As we have shown, a sex-based component to educational participation could result in vast swathes of the population being unable to participate in important conversations.
Boys and men, if they are not participating in education or their traditional role in society are going to do something else. Video games and free pornography are diversions that have turned males into symbiotes plugged into an Idiocracy matrix. Everywhere they turn males find they have increasingly lower or no status. This cuts across all racial lines, so while a heterosexual white male has virtually no standing in the liberal West being viewed as an oppressor who needs to be barely tolerated and who should have no voice in the public forum, Black men are either ignored in favor of Black women or they are marginalized in the push to link transgender and LGBTQ+ issues with minority communities. Latino men are never mentioned at all.
After the adrenaline rush and escapism provided by video games and porn wears off, depression sets in and males have nowhere to turn. Drug use and overdoses are at record highs. So is suicide. The most dangerous societal problem a country can face is unemployed and disenfranchised young men. These are the circumstances that lead to revolutions when apathy is replaced with rage.
Final Thoughts on the Boy Crisis in Education
If there were such a sizable gap in educational attainment between any other demographics, there would be a maelstrom of concerned op-eds and think pieces, possibly even high-profile conferences and workshops. Because it’s boys and men who are suffering, however, the concerns are primarily dismissed or met with a shrug.
Unless the conditions contributing to male under-achievement in education are addressed, there’s a risk of a little over half the Earth’s population being impoverished and under-employed, suffering poorer health and diminished life expectancy, even getting married, leaving home, or having a family of their own.
As we have seen, the cause for the decline in boys’ and men’s educational engagement is complex and varied. We need to avoid the temptation to seek out easy answers, but we also need to be willing to look at hard, possibly uncomfortable truths. To fix our badly broken education system, we need to consider every variable that may be impacting different demographics in order to deliver the best education for everyone. This also means being willing to admit there may be systemic influences at play, to ensure that everyone is given a fair shot at a happy and successful life.
The faults don’t all fall on teachers, students, or even individual schools, however. To re-engage students and convince them of the value of education, the skyrocketing costs of higher education need to be addressed. Students should not be forced to gamble their entire futures on what more or less boils down to a coin flip. College costs must be lowered, student debt must be addressed. The prevailing higher education atmosphere of victim mentality and liberal groupthink is hostile to males and they are checking out. If this proves to be impossible due to the entrenchment of existing forces, alternate trade school paths should be promoted. Universities that do not subscribe to the current campus mindset such as Hillsdale College, will need to be founded and funded.
The fault doesn’t entirely fall on universities either, though. Some of the inflation is due to the rising demand for employees with a Bachelor’s Degree or higher, which is known as “degree inflation.” Of the 11.6 million jobs created in the United States between 2010 and 2016, nearly 75% required at least a Bachelor’s Degree. Degree inflation is finally shrinking, finally, falling from 51% of all jobs requiring a college degree in 2017 to 44% in 2021. Leaving it to employers’ discretion means it could skyrocket again at any time, however. Some sort of official regulations or mandates might help to diminish that possibility.
Getting boys and men engaged and interested in education is a net positive for society and everybody in it. It will help to facilitate greater communication, understanding, and empathy between people of all genders. It will also help to ensure they will have prospects to pursue a long, happy life and the ability to succeed on a personal and professional level.