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

  • What void is the author in the Atlantic article talking about? Maybe it’s not getting to college or not being allowed to be a boy as the Y can’t article says. Good data in the Y can’t Boys be Boys article.

    Jimmy
  • “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 in its wake." This says it all. Boys are not girls, but the article in the Atlantic is confusing our boys even more. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be tougher, mentally and physically.

    In the Atlantic article, the author writes, “Today many parents are unsure of how to raise a boy, what sort of masculinity to encourage in their sons. But as I learned from talking with boys themselves, the culture of adolescence, which fuses hyperrationality with domination, sexual conquest, and a glorification of male violence, fills the void.” WOW! That is harsh. Why does masculinity need to be changed? What void is the author talking about?

    Jimmy
  • I read the entire article by the Atlantic again (I had read it before). I didn’t see any male bashing. If anything, the article says we are doing our boys a disservice by not letting them truly be themselves and express their full emotions. That the “John Wayne” stereotype is still alive and well and setting the expectation of boys behavior. That is not bashing boys. If anything, the article seemed empathetic to boys and roles they are often forced to play.

    Tina Huey

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