Article in Atlantic bashes Boyness

Peggy Orenstein’s article, “The Miseducation of the American Boy,” in the Atlantic is an unsettling look at the life of contemporary male adolescence. By referencing William Pollock and Plan International USA, Orenstein accepts and promotes (without question) a social narrative laid out by William Pollock, Carol Gilligan, and others that ignores important inherent attributes in boys while simultaneously shaming males for being males.  Boys truly are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.  Much of Orenstein’s article and book relies heavily on impressionistic views and poor associations.

Orenstein decided to focus on “those who were in college or college-bound, because like it or not, they’re the ones most likely to set cultural norms,” she writes. This specific focus lays the foundation for later views in the article that takes the worst examples and equates them to some distorted sense of maleness.  Orenstein associates the core of male adolescence and male modeling to extremes not seen in the majority of males. These types of observations are dangerous and do not address the real issues surrounding boys.  (This approach is not uncommon and was used by William Pollock after the Columbine shooting: a time when the actions of boys with serious disturbances were associated as the whole of boy culture). 

By Mentioning “headlines about mass shootings, domestic violence, sexual harassment, campus rape, presidential Twitter tantrums, and Supreme Court confirmation hearings,” Orenstein pushes an oversimplified and dangerous social narrative: Adolescence is fueled by “sexual conquest…male violence” and repressed feelings. Our boys are in danger because they will grow up to be campus rapists, school shooters, and worse; President Donald Trump or Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. 

Even though Orenstein focuses on college bound students, she ignores the fact that boys are much less likely to attend and graduate from college; therefore, the ones least likely to “set cultural norms."  (One has to question Orenstein's appeal that college graduates are setting cultural norms when it comes to social-sexual mores). Orenstein pushes a narrative that boys are dominating the college landscape and hence the cultural norms of society. The fact is males are far behind females in college attendance and graduation rates, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). Since 2000 women have accounted for 9,715,826 more conferred degrees than men (NCES), and women accounted for 660,000 more degrees than men in the 2016-17 academic year (NCES).  This data includes earned Associate, Bachelor, Master, and Doctoral degrees.  Women have also earned over 200,000 to 280,000 more Bachelor’s degrees than men each year since 2002 (NCES Table 380.10) and, conservatively, women receive over 6-billion more in Pell Grants than men each year. 

Academic Year

Total Bachelor Degrees

Males Bachelor Degrees

Females Bachelor Degrees

# More Females w/ Bachelors

2013-14

1,870,150

801,905

1,068,245

266,340

2014-15

1,894,969

812,693

1,082,276

269,583

2015-16

1,920,750

821,746

1,099,004

277,258

2016-17

1,956,032

836,045

1,119,987

283,942


The educational assertion goes unchallenged and is expressed as common knowledge when nothing could be further from the truth, as the NCES data above clearly reveals.  But Orenstein quickly moves on to her essential thesis: By acknowledging the dangers of patriarchal behavior and getting in touch with feelings boys will somehow become more moral and honest. This philosophy has many flaws and has dominated the educational, cultural, and political landscape for decades. It wrongly suggests the worst in boys and men.

In another part of the article, Orenstein associates the military with boys incapable of moral dignity, according to one of the boys she interviewed who plans on entering one of the military academies: 

“I don’t know what to do,” he continued earnestly. “Once I’m in the military, and I’m a part of that culture, I don’t want to have to choose between my own dignity and my relationship with others I’m serving with. But …” He looked me in the eye. “How do I make it so I don’t have to choose?”

The narrative Orenstein constructs seems forced.  Why would a boy equate his own dignity as antithetical to the military? On a personal note, I have many friends who currently serve and served in the military. They are some of the most grounded, kind, thoughtful, and dedicated people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.

The fact that boys would prefer to be taller, more athletic, and have other such physical qualities is normal. (I'm not going to be Tom Brady, but it may inspire me to get to the gym a bit more.)

Seeing boys, and girls for that matter, as inexperienced teenagers filled with hormones and struggling to navigate relationships is not earth shattering.  Promoting "jocks" and certain boy types as miscreants is disappointing to say the least and a clear association to toxic masculinity that serves as a political hit and run that leaves millions of boys and men in its wake.

Orenstein’s lack of opposing perspectives and questionable approach fits prescriptively into her comfortable narrative in Boys and Sex. But it does a real injustice to boys as well intentioned learners on the road to manhood. The article does not address the truest challenge facing our sons, the right to simply be a boy.  

 

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Sean Kullman

 

8 comments

  • The article is not attacking boys. It seems to me she’s saying we should let them feel and express all their emotions instead of having to bury them for someone else’s definition of masculinity. And they can do this by still being respectful of women – as men and boys should always have been.

    Tina Huey
  • Thanks for writing your response to the article. On one hand, I am somewhat grateful that a writer even spent time with boys for an article: “I’ve spent two years talking with boys across America—more than 100 of them between the ages of 16 and 21—about masculinity, sex, and love: about the forces, seen and unseen, that shape them as men.” That’s great — normally people don’t even pay attention. However:

    “Though I spoke with boys of all races and ethnicities, I stuck to those who were in college or college-bound, because like it or not, they’re the ones most likely to set cultural norms.” — this is a mistake.

    As you point out, so many men are dropping out or not even attending college — why? So many people mistake that all men have power and money, while in reality is a small percentage that do. There is a much larger group, including those who don’t go to college at all, so to ignore those men completely in the article is a huge mistake. Thanks for posting the stats! Ask a random friend/acquaintance who are getting more degrees, men or women — and most will say it’s even, or men. Few realize the issue of education is serious for boys.

    Mark Sutton
  • Orenstein is handicapped by her world view that refuses to accept the reality of physical/hormonal/genetic differences between boys and girls or men and women. She is a puppet of the “all things are due to socialization” bigots who preach from the feminist pulpit. It’s simply insane and needs to be called out as being damaging but she is protected by the political correctness shield which vilifies anyone disagreeing with a woman or saying anything, and I mean anything negative about women. lol You can tell who is in power based on who can’t be criticized. Here’s a hint, it ain’t men and boys.

    People like Orenstein are selling us down a river of soft masculinity that will not end well. By denying the positive aspect of potent masculinity and strength they are dooming us. An old poem went something like this “hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, weak men create hard times.” Orenstein is busy taking advantage of our abundance of good times and is happily and unconsciously creating weak men. Now how do you think that will end? Duh.

    Tom Golden
  • The alternative title for this article in The Atlantic is “Toxic Masculinity and the Brokenness of Boyhood.” I’m sure I’m far from alone among men (and probably no small number of women) who get turned off at once by seeing that term “toxic masculinity.” Let’s face it, the word “toxic” has become so attached to “masculinity,” that for many people, just hearing the word “masculine” has itself become a turnoff.

    The idea that an adjective once uncritically applied to males is now so closely associated with toxicity by writers such as Ms. Orenstein makes me question anything else she might say – though there actually are some good points in the piece. What the author totally ignores is the fact that boys have every right to be unhappy and even angry. They have been ignored by the greater society for more than a quarter century, while their sisters have been lauded and encouraged. But now, on top of being ignored, they are being attacked.

    All I hear about is how boys should be different. What I don’t hear about – except in a small circle of those who truly and deeply care about our sons and grandsons — is how society should be different, so that boys are doing better in school and careers. Actually, as Sean implies, we should be worried at least as much about the education of boys than about their “miseducation.”

    Mark
  • Maybe one day we will be judged by the “content of our character” and not our skin color, gender, political affiliation, or religion. In the United States, hard work equals opportunity. No other country has the same opportunities that we do. I hope and pray that my two boys have the same opportunities that every other American has and that they are do not have to fight an uphill battle because of their gender.

    David

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