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Opinion & Essays - Dec, 1999 Issue #64

By: Lon Woodbury

This question, posed in Pete Seeger’s popular song from the 1960’s, is answered by his next lyric; the young men have gone to war. Actually, while some had gone to war, many others flocked to colleges to avoid the war. However, aside from the increase in male college enrollments during the Vietnam War, the century long trend of decreasing percentages of young men attending college has continued while the percentage of females going to college has increased well beyond their representative proportion of the population. Several studies now show that on virtually every measure of academic success, females are outpacing males in both high school and college. This is at least worrisome since whether we like it or not, academic success is the most common route to later success in life. 

The latest of these studies, reported by Thomas G. Mortenson, senior scholar at the Center for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, in Washington D.C. reports much of the same research that has been summarized from time to time in Woodbury Reports. Mortenson states that women are graduating from high school and earning Bachelor’s degrees in increasingly greater numbers than men, despite Census data which shows that males outnumber females in the under-30 population. According to Mortenson, “If the trend since 1970 continues, the last male to be awarded a bachelor’s degree will receive it in the spring of 2067.” (Several reports from the Center can be obtained at

Mortenson’s research correlates with other research showing that in high school, members of honor societies and recipients of awards are primarily female, while those who are expelled, drop- out, receive disciplinary action or are placed in dead-end resource rooms are overwhelmingly male. At the same time there is an intensive national public policy to make schools safer for girls, based on the perception that boys get the most attention in the classroom, while girls’ self-esteem suffers during the teen years. These perceptions have not only influenced changes in our schools, they have also influenced the campaign against sexual harassment, mostly applied against boys, and zero tolerance policies, both of which frequently result in punishment and criminal sanctions against boys who are perceived to be breaking social norms. 

It is boys who have overwhelmingly been diagnosed as ADHD and provided Ritalin to shape their behavior according to socially acceptable norms. In our fear of school violence, the fact that the perpetrators of the string of school shootings have all been boys, has not gone unnoticed. 

It is obvious we are talking about a serious and growing problem when we ask, “Where have all the young men gone?” The future of a society which has a growing percentage of the young male population out of step with its norms, resulting in their anger and alienation, has frightening implications. 

Throughout history, the difficult task of all cultures has been how to “civilize” young adolescent males so they will become contributors to the society rather than the problem. The emerging research forces one to conclude that our society is increasingly unable to properly socialize young adolescent males. 

Some of the data presented by Mortenson shows: 
--The percentage of males receiving Bachelor Degrees decreased from 56.9% in 1970 to 44.4% by 1997; 
--In Business, degrees to males decreased from 91.3% in 1970 to 51.6% in 1997; 
--In Psychology, degrees to males decreased from 56.6% in 1970 to 26.1% in 1997. 
--“Between 1976 and 1981, the male dropout rate [from high school] increased while the female rate continued to decline; --“Labor force participation has declined for males while increasing for females; 
--“Men vote and take part in other civic activities at lower rates than women do; and 
--“Male college freshmen are far more likely to report learning disabilities than are females.” 

Is this really a is problem? If it is, what might be the cause of this trend, and, what might we do about it? 

Perhaps it started during the industrial revolution, when fathers started going to work away from home, essentially abdicating to the mother, the role of raising their sons. If so, then perhaps the adult male role model in the family became more remote with each passing generation, with each generation of sons looking more to their peers, rather than to their fathers or other males in the community for their role models. 

Can part of the root of the problem be seen in the way public education evolved as primarily a female occupation? I remember during the sixties some people wondered what kind of men would result from sons who were raised for the first six years of their lives primarily by their mothers, supplemented by mostly female teachers for the next six years in primary school, with their fathers becoming increasingly remote. Perhaps the answer is becoming clear. 

It is possible that typical custody decisions that emphasize the importance of the mother’s caretaker role, seeing the father as primarily a source of money, have subtly undermined the father’s contribution, redirecting his involvement with his children. This allows some men to elude the responsibility of personally engaging with their sons, while making it difficult for others who wish that involvement. Liberal divorce laws might also contribute to the problem, by making it easier for the less responsible parent to bail, which all too often is the male. 

Could it be that our attempt to standardize rules for our young by emphasizing laws, regulations and due process has created a system that confuses and overwhelms the average person and is comprehensible only to attorneys? Does it result in leveling criminal charges primarily against boys instead of teaching them through appropriate consequences? 

Perhaps replacing cultural sanctions with legal sanctions has made it more difficult to achieve a balance, since legislative bodies are organized to focus on one problem at a time. Cartesian Reductionism at work in the expanding arena of public policy could be a type of blinder; i.e by emphasizing the need to make schools safer for girls, we are totally overlooking how schools might have become more hostile to boys. 

Possibly we haven’t considered boy’s unique educational needs while we change from a goods-producing economy to a service- and information-based economy. 

Perhaps we have ignored the implications for boys in our increasing urbanization that seems to favor communication skills over physical strength? 

Conceivably, by presenting single parenthood as just another workable option, society has understated the tremendous obstacles, challenges and frustrations facing the single parent. [As a single parent, who during the seventies, had sole custody of three small children, I can assure you that is not a route to be taken lightly!] 

Could boy’s violence in schools, increasing gang membership and other manifestations of violence be the boy’s reactive response, a way of lashing out at something they intuitively sense has shown them hostility? 

As this issue is discussed in future months, I’m sure millions of words will be written and dozens of books will be published offering a full spectrum of opinions on the issue, its solution, and yes, who to blame. One thing seems clear: a vital part of the answer lies in the simple observation that boys need to have more strong, positive male role models in their lives, and it is especially important that their fathers be actively involved in helping them grow up if at all possible. 

This issue of “Where have all the young men gone” is especially pertinent to the network of emotional growth schools and programs because our enrollments are heavy with confused, angry and alienated boys who have all the wrong ideas of how men should act. These boys need strong, positive male adult role models, and in this area, emotional growth schools and programs have been very strong, intuitively knowing they must staff with strong adult males worth emulating. This is something the rest of the society should learn from. 

Copyright © 1999, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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