The ongoing opportunity crisis for Black, Latino, and Native boys deserves our attention. But an even broader, existential crisis lurks below.
According to the Brookings Institution, in 2020, men made up only 41 percent of postsecondary studentenrollment. Throughout American high schools, in the 2018-19 academic year, 45,000 fewer boys than girls graduated. For every 100 women, only 74 men earned a bachelor’s degree. Men have a suicide rate 3.7 times higher than women. Last year, suicide was the fourth leading cause of death for adolescents.
A gender gap is now clearly emerging and widening on top of already existing racial opportunity gaps.
Fifteen years ago, in Raising Cain: Exploring the Inner Lives of America’s Boys, Michael Thompson challenged the tough, violent, and impulsive archetypal nature of boys. In the accompanying documentary, Thompson profiled an independent, all-boys school, George Jackson Academy, as an ideal, diverse environment for the healthy emotional development of middle school boys.
I teach there. And I agree with the prophecy that Thompson presented in both the book and documentary when he warned: “If society and the school system stay on their current path, the boys of America are headed for trouble.”
Some educators are taking note. After visiting the public Young Women’s Academy in Harlem and the Bronx this school year, the superintendent in Jersey City, N.J., committed to creating the district’s first public school just for girls and gender-expansive students. Following in Jersey City’s footsteps, more cities and towns should come to New York City and visit George Jackson Academy. Then, I hope, more nurturing educational environments will be created for boys.
Here are the lessons that I would hope to teach them:
1. Make thinking cool. Intellectuals from Michel Montaigne to Sor Juana De La Cruz to Cornell West told us death’s antidote: philosophy. Given the billions of hours viewers around the world streamed of the violent Netflix show"Squid Game,” rest assured middle and high school boys are not only capable but comfortable contemplating death.
But how? One promising avenue is Philosophy for Children, an American invention that can solve an American problem. Developed in the 1970s, the now international movement includes both curricular resources and a pedagogical approach to ponder existential questions. A recent study conducted during the pandemic showed promising gains in intellectual autonomy and mental well-being for elementary-age practicing philosophers. Let’s shut the computers, sit in a circle, think, and talk about life and death.
Every Friday during Philosophy Club at my school, I bear witness to the deep power of communal inquiry. With space to freely construct who they want to be and actively engage in thinking and reading, the young men connect metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics to their lived experience.
2. Make reading cool, too. Stories soothe the soul; streaming and gaming heighten anxiety. A Scholastic reading survey reports that as the current generation of students has grown up, their frequency, sense of importance, and enjoyment of reading has declined with age. This trend is especially troubling for boys, who the survey confirmed are less likely than girls to become both frequent and positive lifelong readers.
School administrators, guidance counselors, and teachers should look to the restorative possibility of books for mental health, particularly for their male students. When I saw one of my advisees walk into homeroom stressed, I tried bibliotherapy. I handed him my personal pocket-sized copy of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Although books are not magic, my advisee told me that the philosophical tradition of Stoicism helped manage his present worries and future anxieties.
3. Hire more male staff to model how and why thinking and reading are cool. In 2020, only 23.5 percent of teachers were male. And men of color make up an even smaller fraction of that number. As increases in automation continue to disproportionately threaten traditionally male jobs, now is the time to recruit and train more men for the teaching profession. An increase in the number of male teachers will challenge gender stereotypes, promote positive relationships between men and young children, increase diversity in the workforce, and champion gender-equitable versions of masculinity. More than role models, male teachers drive engagement and a sense of belonging for all genders.
To be sure, the existential crisis in masculinity affects both boys and gender-nonconforming children. This crisis requires inclusive solutions that addresses the kinds of challenges students face based on differences in race, sexuality, and gender. Teaching boys to value thinking, reading, and caring for others promises a constructive vision of what masculinity can mean.