Men with a high school education or less—let’s call them working class—have seen their life prospects substantially diminished since the 1970s. Academic social science, imbued with gender feminism, has played, and continues to play, a key role in the declining fortunes of such men—through adverse effects on families and the primary and secondary education of boys.
As I noted in Academic Social Science and the Family, many working-class men—increasingly raised without biological fathers—are not adequately nurtured as boys to become responsible adults—a vicious cycle worsening with each generation. Many such boys begin schooling with an “achievement gap” and never acquire, from education, the skills required to fill emerging jobs in the knowledge economy. Conversely, as Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz showed in The Race Between Education and Technology (2008), since around 1980, American educational institutions have not provided enough skilled workers to keep pace with technological advances. Both the demand for skilled workers and the number of working-class men lacking needed skills continue to grow.
Many such men now fill low-skill, low-wage, and part-time jobs and are increasingly poor providers, more dependent on women to support them and the children they sire. Worse yet, nearly one-in-five prime-age (25 to 54) men are not working in the labor force, more than three times the rate in the 1960s. Many have come to lack traditional American industriousness and self-reliance, sullied by state subsidies that undercut incentives to work.
After growing steadily for decades, college attendance by male high school graduates peaked in 1977, while female graduates have continually increased their college matriculation, now receiving about 60 per cent of degrees awarded. Yet, ironically, in the early 1990s—just when women had begun passing men in most measures of educational achievement, including college—the American Association of University Women (AAUW) cited academic social science research allegedly demonstrating that girls were being shortchanged in their K-12 education. This in turn launched a successful campaign to change primary and secondary classrooms to favor girls and became the biased focus of government policy and public education that still prevails. Moreover, the AAUW continues its relentless drive for “gender equity” even in programs that hold the most hope to redress the plight of working-class boys.
The condition of working-class men is a principal source of the economic inequality from wage stagnation afflicting middle class families, and of slower-than-desired national economic growth. But, in 2009, President Obama formed a White House Council on Women and Girls, chaired by his advisor Valerie Jarrett, to continue the emphasis on gender equality. No comparable recognition or priority has been given to the education and recovery of boys and men in America—other than the Common Core State Standards for reading and mathematics, which I discussed in Above and Beyond.
The Family and Boys
Kay S. Hymowitz, Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, explains in City Journal that by the time disadvantaged children (mostly boys) from single-parent and cohabiting families enter kindergarten, they are behind in reading, with smaller vocabularies and language skills and in mathematical understanding. The biggest reasons for the gap are the lack of good parenting and a home learning environment—“bigger than race, preschool attendance, mother’s age, and even maternal education.”
In another article in City Journal, Hymowitz identifies the root of the difficulties of today’s working-class boys, in no small part due to academic social science’s emasculation of marriage and the nuclear family:
The claim that family breakdown has had an especially harsh impact on boys, and therefore men, has considerable psychological and biological research behind it….In fact, signs that the nuclear-family meltdown of the past half-century has been particularly toxic to boys’ well-being are not new. By the 1970s and eighties, family researchers following the children of the divorce revolution noticed that while both girls and boys showed distress when their parents split up, they had different ways of showing it….Boys…”externalized” or “acted out”: they became more impulsive, aggressive, and “antisocial.”…By the 1990s, as divorce rates eased and the ranks of never-married mothers expanded…boys in fatherless homes were still getting into more trouble compared with their sisters and peers with married parents….
Hymowitz also summarizes what is known about the differences between the sexes as they relate to school:
Here’s what cognitive and neuroscientists now agree on. On average, boys are more physically active and restless than girls. They have less self-control and are more easily distracted. They take longer to mature. They have a harder time sitting still, paying attention, and following rules, especially in the early years of school. Not surprisingly then, they are three times as likely to be diagnosed with [Attention Deficit Disorder]….
Boys have always had greater difficulty learning to read than girls—and that holds across all socioeconomic levels…In an industrial age when decent-paying unskilled jobs were plentiful, lack of literacy wasn’t such a grave problem. Nowadays, a boy’s literacy problems can ruin his life chances, blocking him from studying subjects such as history or science. Kids having trouble reading often become disengaged from school and drop out….
It just may be that boys growing up where fathers—and men more generally—appear superfluous confront an existential problem. Where do I fit in? Who needs me, anyway? Boys see that men have become extras in the lives of many families and communities, and it can’t help but depress their aspirations….
Hollywood frequently depicts young men and fathers as feckless and dispensable in television and films, reinforcing that message.
Girls over Boys
But, seeing all boys as the “unfairly privileged sex,” in the early 1990s the AAUW turned American education to further benefit girls. A Greenberg-Lake poll for AAUW of 2,374 girls and 600 boys between grades 4 and 10 produced a report titled Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America (1991). AAUW then commissioned a study by the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, and issued its own report, How Schools Shortchange Girls (1992). These reports concluded that:
- The self-esteem of girls was suffering because of their perceived lack of interest and skills in higher mathematics and science, a key aspect of education for future jobs;
- Girls were being marginalized by stereotypes and lack of role models; and
- Girls were being harmed by teaching methods that fostered competition in learning and were better served by more cooperative learning.
AAUW began a drive to change teaching pedagogy and classroom character to better serve girls. Its report was promoted by the media and led to the Gender Equity Act of 1994, which “categorized girls as an ‘underprivileged population,’ on a par with other discriminated-against minorities.” Primary and secondary education became, and remains, focused on the nature and needs of girls.
That was an unnecessary, ill-advised mistake, as education historian Diane Ravitch commented in 1998:
That AAUW report was just completely wrong. What was so bizarre is that it came out right at the time that girls had just overtaken boys in almost every area. It might have been the right story twenty years earlier, but coming out when it did, it was like calling a wedding a funeral…There were all these special programs put in place for girls, and no one paid any attention to boys.
Pew Research reported, similarly, that until roughly 1990, young men outpaced young women in educational attainment. But women surpassed men in 1992, and the gap has continued to widen.
In “How the Schools Shortchange Boys, “ also in City Journal, in 2006, Gerry Garibaldi paints a portrait of the classroom created by the AAUW and academic social science:
Since I started teaching several years ago,…I’ve come to learn firsthand that everything I’ve heard about the feminization of our schools is real—and far more pernicious to boys than I had imagined….As a result, boys have become increasingly disengaged….
For several decades, white Anglo-Saxon males…have faced withering assault from feminism- and multiculturalism-inspired education specialists….[Textbooks] feature page after page of healthy, exuberant young girls in winning portraits. Boys (white boys in particular) will more often than not be shunted to the background in photos or be absent entirely or appear sitting in wheelchairs….
It is boys’ aggressive behavior and rationalist nature—redefined by educators as a behavioral disorder—that’s getting so many of them in trouble in the feminized schools. Their problem: they don’t want to be girls….
In today’s feminized classroom, with its “cooperative learning” and “inclusiveness,” a student’s demand for assurance of a worthwhile outcome for his effort isn’t met with a reasonable explanation, but is considered inimical to the educational process….
Garibaldi argues that the special-education classification “is the bane of the modern boy.” Boys make up 67 percent of special-education students; more than twice as many boys as girls are assigned to special education. Garibaldi concludes:
Special ed is the great spangled elephant in the education parade. Each year, it grows larger and more lumbering, drawing more and more boys into the procession. Since…, it has grown tenfold. Special ed now is the single largest budget item, outside of basic operations, in most school districts across the country….
Goldin and Katz found, in The Race Between Education and Technology, that from 1940 to 1980, the percentage of young men ages 25 to 34 who completed four-year college degrees increased from 7 percent to 27 percent. But after around 1980, that growth failed to continue.
A 2011 paper in The Milken Institute Review by Brookings’ senior fellows Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney confirms that finding:
In the 1960s and early 1970s, the supply of young college-educated men relative to young high-school-educated men increased rapidly. But male college completion rates peaked in 1977…and then barely changed over the next 30 years.
In every year since 1985, according to the Census Bureau, women have outnumbered men in graduating from college, with women dramatically expanding their lead to the 25 percent advantage they achieved in 2009.
MIT economist Greenstone separately observed that:
I think the greatest, most astonishing fact that I am aware of in social science right now is that women have been able to hear the labor market screaming out “you need more education” and have been able to respond to that, and men have not. And it’s very, very scary for economists because people should be responding to price signals. And men are not…
Hymowitz points out some effects of families without fathers:
Several studies have concluded that boys raised in single-parent homes are less likely to go to college than boys with similar achievement levels raised in married-couple families; girls show no such gap….An American Sociological Review paper found boys with absent fathers less likely to complete a college degree than girls from the same kind of background, even when their high school performance was equal to the girls’.
The gender gap among college students isn’t universal. At most Ivy League schools, the mix is much closer to 50/50, reflecting the advantages of boys raised in families of married college graduates.
Greenstone and Looney also summarize the economic history of working-class men in America:
For most of the past century, a good job was a ticket to the middle class. Hitched to the locomotive of rapid economic growth, the wages of the typical worker seemed to go in only one direction: up. From 1950 to 1970, the average earnings of male workers increased by about 25 percent each decade….Earnings rose for most workers, and almost every prime-aged male (ages 25‒64) worked….
But in the mid-1970s, that pattern abruptly changed. Technological change and globalization continued to power both economic growth and the total earnings of the work force. Women, who were entering the market at increasing rates, enjoyed the fruits of that prosperity in rising wages. The fortunes of a large segment of workers—male workers lacking specialized skills—was unhitched from the engine of economic growth.
Over the past 40 years, a period in which U. S. GDP per capita more than doubled after adjusting for inflation, the annual earnings of the median prime-aged male have actually fallen by 28 percent. Indeed, males at the middle of the wage distribution now earn about the same as their counterparts in the 1950s! This decline reflects both stagnant wages for men on the job, and the fact that, compared with 1969, three times as many men of working age don’t work at all….
Greenstone and Looney note that changing trade patterns and “labor saving” innovation have always occurred over American history. Most workers adapted by investing in skills and education. “The difference today,” they say, “is that men have largely stopped upgrading their skills…since the late 1970s.” The median wage for men has been going nowhere since.
Many working-class men who lack adequate education have turned away from low-wage work because deep changes in American society have made it easier for them to live without working. The deterioration of marriage has reduced the pressure on them to find work because they are less likely than previous generations to be providing for a wife and children. A study by the American Enterprise Institute “estimated that 37 percent of the decline in male employment since 1979 could be explained by this retreat from marriage and fatherhood.”
The percentage of prime-aged men receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) doubled from 2.4 percent in 1970 to 4.8 percent in 2009. Much of the increase in SSDI claims can be traced to benefits (that include Medicare) more attractive than the wages available in the market.
In a seminal work, The Decline of Males: The First Look at an Unexpected New World for Men and Women (1999), Rutgers anthropologist Lionel Tiger evinced that the male faces obsolescence because of the family, education, and economic conditions I have just described, and many others. In a controversial 2010 article, “The End of Men” in The Atlantic, one of the magazine’s senior editors, Hanna Rosin, wrote that:
The working class, which has long defined our notions of masculinity, is slowly turning into a matriarchy, with men increasingly absent from the home and women making all the decisions….Allowing generations of boys to grow up feeling rootless and obsolete is not a recipe for a peaceful future.
Tiger foresaw that the social disorganization thought to be confined largely to African-American communities was rising more quickly in white communities (confirmed by Charles Murray in Coming Apart (2012)) and addressed Rosin’s last point:
Young men in thwarted groups act recklessly, often destructively. The most challenging test to industrial communities will be to provide acceptable and gratifying occupations for young males and the adults they become. No one can exaggerate the crucial importance of how a community engages the energies of young males.
Looking back at the history of Western civilization, the Romans suffered from the unruly spirit and anarchy of gangs of adolescent boys. They solved the problem with the concept of patria potestas—the power of the father that became the foundation of the Roman family and social order. For America, reforming primary and secondary education is the key to reducing the alienation and degeneration of working-class men—to restoring first their role as skilled workers with rising wages and then as functioning fathers in families. It will take at least a generation to slowly bend the current trajectory of working-class men upward and make them better workers and fathers.
Boys need to develop the self-control, focus, and verbal aptitude that come more easily to girls—and are valued by the knowledge economy. That endeavor must begin with primary education, so that in secondary education, more boys can acquire the skills they require to fill emerging middle-skill jobs and go to college more often. As I argued in Above and Beyond, the best current chance to jump start primary and secondary education is the Common Core State Standards for reading and mathematics, the foundation for any more advanced education. And unlike No Child Left Behind, which focuses on performance by race and income, primary and secondary education should be recast to focus also on gender—especially the needs of boys.
Christina Hoff Sommers, a leading advocate for improving the condition of boys, has noted that in a rare example of the academic establishment taking note of boys’ trouble in school, the Harvard Graduate School of Education published a major study, Pathways to Prosperity, in 2011, which highlights the “yawning gender gap” in education favoring women. The authors call for a national revival of vocational education in secondary schools.
After forty years of demoting boys and men, driven by gender feminism, it is high time that the academy and academic social science follow Harvard’s lead and adjust their focus to correcting the reverse “gender gap” it largely created—now-underprivileged working-class males and the women they are failing and burdening, along with the taxpayers supporting them.
This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.
The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).
 Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, The Race Between Education and Technology (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2008).
 David Leonhardt, “Men, Unemployment and Disability,” The New York Times, 8 April 2011. Mark Peters and David Wessel, “More Men in Prime Working Ages Don’t Have Jobs,” The Wall Street Journal, 6 February 2014.
 “Why Men Are Falling Behind in Higher Ed,” collegestats.org, May 2013.
 Christina Hoff Sommers, “How to Make School Better for Boys,” The Atlantic, 13 September 2013. Christina Hoff Sommers, “Oh, come on, men aren’t finished,” American Enterprise Institute, www.aei.org, 15 September 2011.
 Sommers, “How to Make School Better for Boys.”
 Kay S. Hymowitz, “Culture and Achievement,” City Journal, Manhattan Institute, Autumn 2014.
 Kay S. Hymowitz, “Boy Trouble,” City Journal, Manhattan Institute, Autumn 2013.
 Hymowitz, “Boy Trouble.”
 Greenberg-Lake, Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America, 1991. American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, How Schools Shortchange Girls, 1992.
 Christina Hoff Sommers, “Politics Dressed Up as Science,” The Atlantic, May 2000.
 Sommers, “Politics Dressed Up as Science.”
 Wendy Wang, “Women See Benefits of College; Men Lag on Both Fronts, Survey Finds,” Pew Research, 17 August 2011.
 Gerry Garibaldi, “How the Schools Shortchange Boys,” City Journal, Manhattan Institute, Summer 2006.
 Goldin and Katz, Race Between Education and Technology.
 Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney, “Trends: Reduced Earnings for Men in America,” The Milken Institute Review, Third Quarter 2011.
 Terence P. Jeffrey, “25% Fewer Men Than Women Graduate College; Obama: It’s ‘A great Accomplishment…for America’” cnsnews.com, 24 June 2012.
 Binyamin Appelbaum, “Study of Men’s Falling Income Cites Single Parents,” The New York Times, 20 March 2013.
 Hymowitz, “Boy Trouble.”
 “Why Men Are Falling Behind in Higher Ed.”
 Greenstone and Looney, “Trends: Reduced Earnings for Men in America.”
 Binyamin Appelbaum, “The Vanishing Male Worker: How America Fell Behind,” The New York Times, 11 December 2014.
 Greenstone and Looney, “Trends: Reduced Earnings for Men in America.”
 Lionel Tiger, The Decline of Males: The First Look at an Unexpected New World for Men and Women (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999).
 Hanna Rosin, “The End of Men,” The Atlantic, July/August 2010.
 Tiger, Decline of Males, 193. Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Forum, 2012).
 William H. Young, Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (Indianapolis: Xlibris, 2010), 115.
 Sommers, “How to Make School Better for Boys,”