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Watts: Boys Adrift

We’re approaching a critical date in the world of college admissions – the day students put down their deposits and name their college choices. But admissions officers and college presidents already know one thing for sure – that the incoming class will have more women than men.

These days, fewer young men apply to college, even fewer attend, and one out of three nationally will drop out before finishing. Moreover, these young men are twice as likely as their female counterparts to return home to live with their parents. In fact, there’s a sweeping wave of societal disengagement troubling our young men today. College applications and admissions are one aspect but it’s only one sign among many. From internships to other academic opportunities, participation at every level is now dominated by women. When I ask for volunteers or assign extra credit in the classes I teach, it’s the women who show up.

If these women don’t run into class ceilings, this is undoubtedly good for society. But lack of participation from young men could become a societal wave with potentially broad and negative impacts in the long run. Research is mixed on why. Psychologist Leonard Sax in his book Boys Adrift identifies several possible causes.

First: our elementary school system places a heavy emphasis on learning, testing, and immediate outcomes. Boys mature intellectually later than girls. So when we force boys to learn to read at the same age as girls, some are simply not yet capable. Shunted to the “trouble-maker” or “dumb” group at an early age, they carry that stigma with them through their lives, losing interest in school.

Sax also argues that the over-prescription of drugs to calm active boys may be another practice leading to harmful consequences. Likewise, social media and video game fun can lead young men to feel less connected and engaged with real life. And underlying it all is the lack of good male role models living normal lives, in society, TV shows, video games – and yes, politics.

Parents can limit screen time, bring the screens out into the open, and try to reduce the pressure for education success in the early years. But the disengagement of boys is a phenomenon that will require serious attention and broad societal action from all of us.

Richard Watts teaches communications and public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont and directs the Center for Research on Vermont. He is also the co-founder of a blog on sustainable transportation.
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