Schools, society neglect men

Shame on you, Duke University. You position yourself as an illustrious center of higher education, an institution on the bleeding edge of academic progress and advancement. And yet you don’t even have a program in Men’s Studies.

No, it’s not a joke, nor is it the end part of a rhetorical question meant to sass Women’s Studies (as in, “How come there’s no Men’s Studies?”). Men’s Studies is real; as a movement it’s been limping around since at least the late 1970s, half-heartedly attempting to gain credibility and be recognized as its own academic discipline.

I know I’m obligated to make some cracks about how Men’s Studies involves watching guys cheer for football teams and drink beer, but I’m just not feeling up to it. If you’re really hurting for humor about the observation that some men like watching sports a lot, and some women don’t like sports as much (HILARITY), please consult any TV sitcom with Ray Romano.

According to the American Men’s Studies Association, the organization that seems to be nominally in charge of the field, more than 40 colleges and universities currently feature some kind of Men’s Studies program. As far as content goes, it’s what you’d expect: post-modern male identities, post-structural performances of masculinity, post-intelligible mushy language that makes me feel tired and unfortunate, as if these words are somehow stealing my luck.

Absurd? Probably yes. There are thousands of reasons to ridicule Men’s Studies, many of them completely valid. Ahead of its time? Maybe yes to that as well. Men’s Studies, in its own sloppy way, has at least been trying for a while now to respond to a question that until recently got short shrift from nearly everyone else: how to give some account of the current state of the American man, to figure out what to do with men now that manhood’s been run through the cultural shredder.

It’s a question with increasingly high stakes. Mounting evidence suggests that American men are crashing and burning compared to their female counterparts, at all levels. In the K-12 years, according to the U.S. Department of Education, boys are four times as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD as girls, and men constitute a comfortable majority of those with learning disabilities. In high school, boys are much more likely to be suspended or expelled, to drop out or to commit suicide.

Male under-performance has carried over to higher education, as well. The “gender gap” continues to widen nationally (only 42 percent of American college students are male), and per the 2005 National Survey of Student Engagement, men in college typically spend less time studying than, and skip or come to class unprepared more frequently than, their female counterparts. At Duke, the situation is not so dire; like other top-tier universities, the school’s huge applicant base and selectivity have kept the gender balance even and the quality of the male student high. Even so, Trinity College is 52 percent female, and it has been for a while.

If trends continue, even the fanciest institutions will be forced to make tough choices: accept the imbalance, or accept less-qualified men. It’s a decision that schools like UNC-Greensboro, where women outnumber men three to one, are already facing.

And it’s not just that women have made gains relative to men. In education, at least, the best that can be said is that men’s academic achievement has remained static for 30 years. At worst, men are backsliding, and fast.

Like any social phenomenon, there are a million competing explanations, some intriguing, some strident and irrelevant, some completely insane. I’m less interested in a definitive diagnosis than in the overall portrait that’s being painted here, one of a culture (campus and otherwise) that’s abandoning its men.

By all accounts, we gave up a long time ago on trying to mold boys into a generally accepted vision of manhood. The social and political movements of the ’60s and ’70s were great at ripping up the (admittedly flawed) traditional masculinities and really terrible at leaving anything coherent in their place. I can’t say whether older, traditional versions of “being a man” were right or wrong. I do know I grew up without one, as did most of my peers.

One of the only coherent articulations of manhood I received was from advertising executives, who unsurprisingly have been very adept at creating a masculinity based on buying things, an eternal adolescence populated by big-screen TVs, big engines and chicks with big boobs who belch, fart and like beer and football (Just like you, guys! How hot is that?).

It’s a de-fanged, dumb-fun image of being a man, sure, but it’s also pretty infantile and unsatisfying. If the most prevalent male identity we can offer is embodied by Spike TV or Maxim magazine, it’s no surprise that so many men are totally lost.

And no, I don’t honestly believe that a Duke Men’s Studies program (or a Duke Men’s Initiative, for that matter) would be a valid solution to this male vacuum, although I do believe that a huge number of persistent campus problems — misogyny, self-destructive drinking, the replacement of dating with casual sex — have to do with the fact that the freshly minted men of the student body simply have no idea what we’re doing.

I’m not going to throw up some masculine ideal we can all aspire to. Mostly I just want recognition that leaving men to chance or marketing is a pretty poor strategy. “Do it yourself” isn’t working anymore.

Brian Kindle The Daily Campus University of Connecticut U-Wire