When Michael Ian Black published an op-ed entitled “The Boys Are Not Alright” for The New York Times back in February, it garnered a lot of attention from educators, parents, and advocates of young people.
Black’s analysis of young men and masculinity didn’t pull any punches. He referenced the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, where 17 high school students lost their lives, and contemplated the role that toxic gender expression may have played. “What do these shootings have in common?” Black questions. “Guns, yes. But also, boys. Girls aren’t pulling the triggers. It’s boys. It’s almost always boys.”
Now, in the wake of another school shooting in Texas perpetrated by the hands of yet another young male, the conversation on school safety has been revived. This is just the latest reiteration of a story that’s been told too many times and too many ways, each just as tragic.
While we usually focus on mental health or gun reform, “The Boys Are Not Alright” adds a another dimension to that story.
“America’s boys are broken,” Black asserts. “And it’s killing us.”
The idea is that toxic masculinity — an aggressive, hypersexual, and even violent expression of male pride — is crippling our young men and causing them to act out, to show rage and anger indiscriminately.
Black isn’t alone in his concerns about toxic masculinity. Dr. Cora Bruener, an adolescent medicine specialist at Seattle Children’s Hospital, agreed in a recent interview that boys “are not taught to express emotions in a way between withdrawal or rage.”
Later in the same interview, mental health expert Dr. Gregg Jantz goes a step further. “Boys are failing in school at all-time high rates. It used to be a couple years ago we were getting about 70 percent of the D’s and F’s for boys… More recently in our work, we’re seeing closer to 90 percent of the D’s and F’s and most of the disciplinary problems are going to the boys, so boys are failing in school as a general statement.”
Like the experts in the video, I’m not convinced that throwing out the phrase “toxic masculinity” is the right way to approach the issue. There’s nothing wrong with being a male or embracing one’s masculinity.
But at the same time, it would be irresponsible to ignore the stark differences that these experts have pointed out between male and female students. Perhaps too much screen time and video games are to blame, as a new study suggests. Perhaps we can just chalk it all up to the conventional wisdom — that girls simply mature faster than boys. Or maybe, just maybe, something we did (or didn’t do) along the way came up short.
That’s one reason why “teaching to the whole child” has become such a popular catchphrase in education. While it is crucial to ensure that our kids are successfully learning the fundamentals of math, reading, science, and the arts, I’m curious if we should be doing more to help our students grow as individuals and citizens.
In other words, schools have a place in this fight. Whether it’s through mentoring programs, engaging our students’ parents, or just flat-out good teaching, schools will need to get more engaged in the lives of our young men if we really want to help them face these unique challenges.
Image from Flickr, CC-Licensed.