Commentary

Where have all the young men gone?

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Remember Pete Seeger’s haunting anti-war song — “Where have all the young men gone? Gone for soldiers, everyone. When will they ever learn?” Fifty years later, a different chorus — Where have all the young men gone? Too few for education and credentials leading to success. When will they ever learn?

Recent data about male failures in schools, colleges and skill development should concern us all. The number of young people now in college and those in the pipeline are dropping significantly. Last year there were 1.5 million fewer college students than five years ago, and men accounted for 70% of the decline. The largest number and percentage of decline are among men. Only four in 10 college students are currently men. Boys and young men drop out of schools and colleges at a higher rate and fewer develop essential credentials.

Two important caveats: Although the gender gap is real, we must do better with women along with men. It just seems harder now with men. Not all young men and women need college; some must gain credentials through apprenticeships, on-the-job training and other preparation in skills needed by employers now and for the future.

Decades of teaching and observation lead to judgments regarding reasons for male failures:

• Lure of immediate gratification spurred by minimum-wage jobs or dangerous get rich prospects involving drugs, gangs, and crime;

• Lust for cars, preferably large and noisy, to gain attention by mortgaging their futures, becoming slaves to cars, and leaving school to work at minimum-wage jobs;

• A false masculinity of “big boys don’t seek help from teachers” and fear of being nerdy that encourages ignorance and mediocrity;

• Disregarding studies to invest inordinate time and energy into athletic success more admired by peers, parents and community evidenced by newspaper articles about athletic scholarships to second-rate institutions, whereas academic scholarships to the best colleges that do not award athletic scholarships are ignored;

• Absence of men as positive adult models in schools, churches, neighborhoods and homes, forcing many boys to work to support their single mothers and siblings;

• Large numbers of men in prisons;

Those grim realities are worse for African-American students and those who are poor, in impoverished and inferior schools, first generation, and lacking stable family life. Even if others do well, future prospects are tragic for those men and their neighbors.

Unskilled manufacturing jobs supporting middle-class lifestyles of previous American generations are disappearing. Brawn and low cognitive skills are inadequate. Mechanization, computers, robots and developing technologies replace them in most entry-level jobs. Specialized schooling beyond high school is more important to securing future employment, advancement and a good life. “Up-skill” to gain new knowledge and skills for current tasks and “re-skill” to develop capabilities for new roles are the emerging models for continued success. Few people will long hold the same job or do the same tasks in the future. Higher cognitive, technological and social/emotional requirements already govern the workforce. Effective education/training and a capacity for life-long learning are required to maintain a middle-class lifestyle. Too many face futures increasingly detached from work, family and faith. Despair replaces the American dream.

The problem is complex, and effective responses must be multilayered. If we focus only on high school and college, it is already too late. The gender and social gaps begin in homes and elementary schools and must be addressed early and throughout the development process. We can respond immediately: Admit that a significant problem exists; recognize that it exists now right here locally; and support the college, schools, programs and individuals in Montgomery County that are successfully addressing the issues.

Where will our young men and women go? We can hope, pray and strive for better futures than now darken the horizon.

 

Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.

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