The Lost Boys

Here’s an exchange I just had with Stephen Hicks over a recent Wall Street Journal article, “A Generation of American Men Give Up on College” (Sept. 6, 2021). (The Journal piece is paywalled, but can be one-time accessed by registering.)

Naturally, I’m having trouble with the technological wonders of the “block editor,” so I’ve indicated in italics where each separate quotation begins.

Stephen’s reaction to the article:

Two thoughts:

  1. This is a bad thing. Boys and young men have been ill-served by mainstream education, such that they are unmotivated and unprepared for life’s challenges — and they know it in their bones.
  2. This is a good thing. Rather than waste two or four more years of the same at colleges and universities that extend the mis-education, the young men will gropingly get into real life and actually find something engaging and valuable to do.

My reaction to Stephen’s comment:

Isn’t there a third thought worth having? Couldn’t it be that what Mill said in “The Subjection of Women” about the boys and men of nineteenth century Britain is also true of boys and men (of all socio-economic classes) in the 21st century United States? Namely: that they’re systematically irresponsible and lazy, and have internalized a sense of entitlement that’s incompatible with success in any domain–except those where they enjoy substantial advantages simply for being male. The article itself lends support to this thought.

The article notes, somewhat pathetically, that there’s a “thumb on the scale” for men in the college admissions process. The Wall Street Journal, famous for its criticisms of race-based affirmative action, seems not to have much of a problem with this. No one quoted in the article is willing to come out and condemn affirmative-action-for-boys in a wholehearted way. Evidently, the reporter couldn’t find anyone to do so. Too bad they don’t have my contact information. But affirmative-action-for-boys certainly doesn’t cohere with the thought that men are ill-served by higher education. It sounds more like they’re being catered to.

The “lost boys” phenomenon is not a “bad thing” in a sense that entails a criticism of how “ill served” they’ve been higher education. “Knowing in one’s bones” that one has been ill-served is no better than “knowing in one’s blood,” the claim notoriously made by partisans of ethnic identity politics (including white nationalists and Zionists). None of that is knowledge. It sounds more like a bunch of gut-level rationalizations for defects of character. I’ve seen no credible evidence that males have been ill-served by higher education, just a lot of hand-waving and whining to that effect. (Which includes this article.)

Anyone will be “ill served” by higher education if what they’re expecting is to be served in the literal sense of that word. And in my experience in higher education–26 years’ worth–many, many college-aged men did expect (and do expect) just that. I still have pro bono academic advisees from my career as a college instructor. All of them are women. The difference between these women and the men described in the article is that they didn’t “give up” after a few weeks of college on the premise that because they didn’t understand the material, it must surely all be pointless. People do that when they upgrade their blank ignorance and turn it into knowledge, a common character defect among men.

Nor is the “lost boys” phenomenon a “good thing” that suggests that these same shiftless boys and men will profit from trade school. They won’t profit from any school unless they cultivate a desire to learn, something many of them lack. Eventually girls and women will find their way into these same male-dominated trade schools. I wonder if, at that point, we’ll begin to hear whining complaints about how these incoming women have overtaken men, leaving them “lost” as a result.

You’re apt to feel lost in life if your moral GPS is off. I was an academic advisor to countless students, male and female. I can’t even begin to recount the nonsense I heard from male college students about their aspirations for life and expectations of the future. When they were able to think past tomorrow’s sexual conquest or bong hit, their beliefs about the future descended into a series of materialistic fantasies that would somehow come to pass by magic.

The article talks about how men are “hobbled” but is itself hobbled by a blatant contradiction. On the one hand, it tells us that the malaise that affects men affects men of all socio-economic classes. On the other hand, it tells us that men are hobbled by the focus on “historically underrepresented students.” I find all of that frankly laughable, but even if it were true, it doesn’t explain why women in those groups outperform the men in them, as they do.

This article, unimportant in itself, is symptomatic of an amazing double standard in right-wing polemics. On the one hand, the political Right is fixated on the idea that merit has been undervalued, a fixation that becomes particularly intense when anti-meritocratic claims are made by underrepresented minorities. On the other hand, when the most privileged youngsters in the land start to fall on their faces for reasons of their own making, the Right is there to issue hand-wringing grievances on their behalf. These are all symptoms of a movement that, despite its high-toned moral talk, has essentially lost its moral bearings–a movement as lost as the boys it’s worried about.

Stephen’s reaction to my comment:

I think you read a different article than I did, Irfan. The article’s implication is not about what happens in higher education so much as what happens prior to higher education. It notes that about three women apply to college for every two men, which suggests that the decisive shaping is before college. The lower college enrollment rates and lower graduation rates of males relative to females is then a symptom of much earlier causes. So: “What’s happening with children and adolescents?” not “What’s happening with in higher education?” is the question.

My response to the just-preceding comment:

Sorry, no. The article is about both things, pre-college and college education, and so is Stephen’s original comment on it. The implication is that boys are ill-served pre-college, and that men are ill-served in college itself. The subtitle of the article refers to the words of a college student, after all (“I Just Feel Lost”). More women apply to college not simply because “the decisive shaping is before college,” but also because men who have recently gone to college have (mis)informed their younger peers that college is a frightful place for men–parroting the right-wing talking point du jour.

In any case, the issue is not simply how many apply, but how many graduate, which obviously bears on the nature of college education. The subtitle of the print version of the article is “Young Men Abandon College,” which presupposes that they’ve been there. Finally, point (2) of Stephen’s own comment makes explicit reference to college’s extending “the mis-education” of K-12 education. So he himself must see a basic continuity between the two issues he now insists on bifurcating.

As someone who was very reluctantly forced out of an academic position in higher education, I can’t help viewing with dismay the tendency (almost entirely right-wing) to saddle higher education with unearned guilt. Higher education has now become a convenient whipping boy for a political movement that has accomplished little in “the real world” it so loudly valorizes, and apparently has nothing better to do than to blame academia for the world’s ills.

And as someone who actually works in “the real world”–the Right’s tendentious misdescription of the non-academic world–I’m confronted, every day, with the relevance and significance of the issues I once discussed in the classroom, in “Critical Thinking,” “Applied Ethics,” and “Epistemology.” Instead of attacking the academia, those in it should be rallying to its defense against the philistine, propagandistic attacks now being made on it.

The irony here is that a version of Stephen’s famous thesis about the Left now applies with greater relevance to the Right: the Right’s recent failures in politics have driven it to desperate intellectual expedients in an attempt to make up for lost political ground. Very little of what the Right now has to say is of any real guidance in real-live political life. From politics the Right has turned to a form of theater, an extended, dramatic attempt to find new enemies to attack, and new straw men to set up and knock down–the “educational establishment,” but particularly higher education, being the great favorites.

It’s a losing strategy. My advice? Abandon it before it becomes a sunk cost.

6 thoughts on “The Lost Boys

    • I meant “pathetically,” not parenthetically. Affirmative action for men is pathetic–or contemptible, perhaps. After literally centuries of male domination in our culture (in every culture on the planet), it’s now taken for granted that admissions offices have to favor men in admissions. It’s hard to think of anything more absurd. It’s hard being a man in our culture? Really? Men need a special helping hand because the world is systematically structured against their interests?

      I don’t know what’s worse, that there are such policies in place, or that they’re being tolerated, and even advocated and defended, by people who’ve spent the last five decades railing against affirmative action for underrepresented groups. I’m not a great enthusiast of traditional affirmative action, but affirmative action for men is just flat-out WTF/SMH-level insanity. Even “insanity” is the wrong word, because insanity is an excusing condition. This is just flat-out culpable.

      For decades, I’ve heard smug right-wingers extolling the wonders of “Western Civilization,” fixating specifically on the plight of women in Islamic cultures. There’s something to that, of course. But barring a take-over by explicitly theocratic political parties, you couldn’t get affirmative-action-for-men to fly at a Palestinian or Pakistani university. I’m not sure even Hamas would support such a thing. Meanwhile, we take it for granted here, then congratulate ourselves on how great women have it in our culture.

      So yeah, pathetic.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Believe it or not, this was one of my late wife’s favorite songs, one of the first songs she played for me on one of our first dates. The first film we saw together (as a romantic couple) was “La La Land,” which we both loved (including the soundtrack). So yes, she had varied tastes. I’m now curious how she would have reacted to the WSJ article.


  1. Pingback: Lost Boys Redux | Policy of Truth

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