Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Boys and Young Men: A New Cause for Liberals

A crisis that needs the attention of America's liberals

"It may still be a man's world. But it is no longer in any way a boy's."

-- Michelle Conlin, "The New Gender Gap," the cover story in Business Week, May 26, 2003

My first two posts were humorous (writing humor is an important part of my life), but this one is not. It’s about a problem that still hasn’t hit a tipping point, even though the data made it pretty obvious nearly two decades ago. It involves a huge segment of our population: Young males.

In case you haven’t noticed, America’s boys and young men are in trouble – not doing well in school, lacking ambition, often floundering. Not all of them, of course, but enough to take notice. There's more and more in the news lately about the trouble America's boys are in (“crisis” was the term used in a Newsweek cover story in 2006). As a psychologist with a longstanding interest in gender issues, I have been aware of and upset by this for many years. (And I will freely admit that an important motivator for me is the fact that I have three sons and three grandsons.) What has disturbed me even more has been the response I have often received when I’ve mentioned this issue to female friends over the years.

Either they have been unaware of it, surprised to hear that males in college are a distinct minority – now down to 43 percent of college undergraduates -- or they have said something like, So what? You guys had your turn, now it's ours.

Aside from the fact that this attitude is blatantly anti-child and anti-youth, since it absolutely denies the aspirations of half our children, it is bad for today's girls and young women too. As New York Times columnist John Tierney – among others – has pointed out, high achieving women want even higher achieving men as partners, and these men are in ever shorter supply

Yes, there have been numerous articles and opeds in newspapers since Conlin’s piece, other magazine cover stories, and TV specials (on 60 Minutes and PBS), but there has been no “boys’ movement” with anything close to the impact of the national efforts to help girls that grew out of the modern women’s movement. Even today, when someone writes about the way boys are lagging behind girls, he or she often talks about it as if it just started happening. For example, in a Times oped piece published on March 27 of this year, Nicholas Kristof, who has written extensively on the problems of girls and women in developing countries, says:

“Around the globe, it’s mostly girls who lack educational opportunities. Even in the United States, many people still associate the educational “gender gap” with girls left behind in math.

“Yet these days, the opposite problem has snuck up on us: In the United States and other western countries alike, it’s mostly boys who are faltering in school. The latest surveys show that American girls on the average have roughly achieved parity with boys in math. Meanwhile, girls are well ahead of boys in verbal skills, and they just seem to try harder.”

I must admit that when I read this, and saw the words “snuck up on us,” my immediate reaction was “Where have you been?” For anyone who cared to look at the data – and for millions of parents of sons – the problem was already there close to two decades ago.

How has this "new gender gap" come to be and what can we do about it?

There are lots of theories about its causes, including absent fathers, schools geared more to girls than boys, brain differences between the sexes, boys' obsession with videogames and so on. But because no one has ever launched a major study, it's all still speculation. But it’s very easy to point to something that has let the problem grow to the point where even the most ardent feminist may find it hard to ignore: Caring about boys and young men -- as a social group -- is not something liberals do. At least they haven't, right up to this day.

I'm a liberal, but my primary professional allegiance is to the truth, especially as expressed by solid data. In this case, a truth dovetails with my primary concern, period: my family, the human beings who, along with my wife, I love most in this world: my three grown children and their three kids – all males!

I first became aware of data showing boys falling behind girls in school in the early 1990s, when the youngest of my sons was turning 10. I wrote letters urging the college at which I taught not to join in on the new "Take Our Daughters to Work" bandwagon (which started in 1993), but rather to make it "Take Our Children to Work." I presented the data, but not one person on the nine-member committee even responded to me.

I went to a conference in 1994 where David Sadker, coauthor of the then newly published Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girls, was the keynote speaker, and I raised my hand to say that I was confused, since the data was showing that it was boys who were having more trouble in school than girls. I was derided by Sadker and given no support whatever from anyone else in the audience of a hundred.

Am I crazy, I thought? Is there something I don't know?

No, I wasn't crazy, but there was something I didn't know. I didn't know that when it came to gender issues, political correctness was more important than data.

Always a staunch supporter of feminism, I was stuck. There was my "genetic" liberalism on the one hand (when you're born to middle-class Jewish parents in Brooklyn in 1942, you're pretty much a liberal from birth), but there were my beautiful children on the other, children who were part of a group clearly falling behind and being ignored by my left-wing compatriots.

But how could I join Christina Hoff Sommers, whose 2000 book, The War Against Boys had data I had been writing about for years, but who had infuriated feminists with her earlier book (Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women) and ultimately left Clark University to join the conservative American Enterprise Institute?

I still consider myself a liberal, but watching the struggles of my own children, and hearing about the problems of my friends' sons, not to mention seeing data which grows more definitive every year, how can I ignore this? To me, liberals try to right wrongs, and that's why when it comes to race, sexual orientation, the environment, and yes, sexism directed at women, I'm there.

But right now, where our young people are concerned, males need to be a major focus -- not just their emotional development, which has been a liberal concern for years -- but how they do in school. This will take efforts not only in schools, but at home and in communities. But most of all, it will take liberals joining in, whether they have sons or daughters. Ultimately, a cohort of undereducated and low-achieving men in a world of educated and high-achieving women sounds like a recipe for social disaster, one couple (or single male) at a time.

I can't see myself joining people with whom I disagree sharply on almost all other social issues, so I can't see somehow becoming a conservative to help my sons, my grandsons, and young males across the country. But I can't stand feeling so alone either; so all I can do is urge my fellow liberals to make this part of their agenda too. Maybe boys haven't been the victims of laws and obvious -isms, but, as a group, they have been the victims of, at very least, neglect, and they need help from across the political spectrum.

I remember a moment a few years ago when I was at my old department offices at the nearby college, and was talking to a colleague a few years younger than me. He was getting somewhat well-known for work in his field, one which is much less controversial. When I mentioned how the issue of boys and their problems in school was now finally getting some national attention, years after I became very interested in the topic, he said, "You were cutting edge."

That doesn't sound conservative, does it?

But a little while later, after we talked about his soon-to-be-published book, he said, "Maybe you should collaborate with one of those right-wing blonde women who appear on Fox News."

I think things have changed somewhat since that conversation, but on the list of liberal causes, the “boy problem” is barely on the radar screen. Maybe a new book by Richard Whitmire (cited by Kristof), will help. It’s called Why Boys Fail, and, as Kristof says, it has “mountains of evidence” showing how boys are lagging behind girls in school.

I hope my fellow liberals read it. The time has more than come.

More from Mark Sherman Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today