Taking Male Students Seriously

As too many male students fail to enroll or succeed in higher education, writes Rocco L. Capraro, the ideas of men's studies point to a path forward.

September 22, 2014
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Today’s college men, as a group, are not doing so well — in comparison with today’s college women and with college men of the past. Many men are simply not attending college at all; and of those who matriculate, they are not graduating in large numbers, again, as compared to women and to previous generations of men. Coming out of high school, they are not as well prepared for college. They are reading less than girls and less than boys of older generations. In fact, if college admissions were gender-blind, the vast majority of students at our most selective colleges would be women.

While at college, men are less engaged in their studies and in student life, and they receive lower grades and fewer honors. (Men in STEM courses, i.e., science, technology, engineering, and math, are the exception.) On campus, they exhibit higher rates of alcohol and substance abuse and commit more social conduct violations. College men use fewer student services and are more reluctant to seek help and attend support programs. In short, men are getting less out of their college experience, and they are not taking it upon themselves to do something about it. 

All that may strike us as odd, or it used to. Now it seems to be on everyone’s mind, especially parents of boys. Even a recent issue of Scouting magazine (May/June 2013) ran a cover story on how to  promote literacy among boys. Historically, though, we have tended to think of men in general as powerful and privileged, and it would be reasonable to expect college men to be higher-achieving. In a society that values education and where education is often the pathway to success for the middle class, it would make sense for men to be doing better, especially with the awareness that most of our older and more prestigious colleges — the very models of higher education — were established with men in mind.

What is stranger still is that, unlike the performance of other groups, we often struggle for an explanation of college men’s experience, their lack of success. Back in 2004, I expressed it this way in an article: “When the problem of the success of college women was first articulated, we quickly developed an explanation — sexism. And when the problem of the success of college persons of color was addressed, we readily found a similar explanation — racism. But when it comes getting at the underlying cause of the lack of success of college men, we seem to be at a loss.” When feminist, critical race, and other explanatory systems were developed, they relied, in part, on differences in power to explain the experience of women, persons of color, and other oppressed groups — in other words, the relatively powerless, and not the obviously powerful. That is where men’s studies can help: both in understanding why college men may be struggling and what we can do about it.

Men’s studies is an emerging field of knowledge concerned primarily with men’s experience, identity, and development throughout the life course. In so far as it focuses on what men are (social reality); what we think men are (stereotypes); and what we would like men to be (gender ideal); men’s studies could be described as the study of masculinities. Fundamentally, it studies men as men, and not as generic human beings. In his classic essay, “The Case for Men’s Studies,” Harry Brod said it best: Men’s studies is “the study of masculinity as a specific male experience, rather than a universal paradigm for human experience.”

Following from Brod, I wrote that a “men’s studies of college men would be a study of college as a specific male experience rather than a universal human experience.” In other words, instead of talking about students we should be talking about male students, female students, etc.

At bottom, what men’s studies teaches us, and where it can play a role in improving the lives of college men, is the fundamental insight that the totality of men’s experience cannot be explained by men’s power alone. True, objectively speaking, men as a group may still have power over women as a group; however, subjectively, individual men do not necessarily feel powerful, or behave as if they were in control.  That is because many men engage in harmful, self-destructive behaviors linked to messages about manhood, or feel they do not measure up to the gender ideal, or are burdened by harmful stereotypes of what it means to be a man.

They are also socialized not to express their feelings, report symptoms, reveal their vulnerability, or otherwise deal in healthy ways with their emotions. And when it comes to learning, they learn at an early age that “school is for girls.” Masculinity leaves men feeling shamed and disempowered, suffering the negative consequences of their own notions of manhood and their own aversion to female identified values and attributes.

Worse yet, after steering men in the wrong direction, masculinity — insidiously and tragically — interferes with help-seeking behavior. No wonder so many men struggle in college. On campus, college women more likely to be sober and involved and men are drinking more — and more often — and are more distracted. College women in distress are more likely to seek out counseling centers or are referred by a friend, while college men become silent or act out. Informed by men’s studies, we can better design programs and services for college men, with men in mind. Hobart College, a men’s college where I am a dean and faculty member, offers a program for first-year men, Men’s Lives, which includes four mandated workshops on sexual assault prevention, men’s health and wellness, career and family, and diversity from a men’s perspective. We believe it has made a difference in the retention and success of our college men.

In closing, nothing I have said here invalidates or is inconsistent with feminist or social justice perspectives. On the contrary, most men’s studies work is “pro-feminist,” geared toward men, but compatible with best practices for college women. Men’s studies does not bash college men or re-privilege them, but, in the words of Victor Seidler, simply asks college men to take responsibility for their actions and make the right choices for college success.  To modify a phrase coined by Adrienne Rich, the role of men’s studies is to exhort us to “take men students seriously.”   



Rocco L. Capraro is senior associate dean of Hobart College and assistant professor of history. This essay is adapted from one in What Works: A Book About Raising Boys, Engaging Guys, and Educating Men.

The book may be ordered, free, from Hampden-Syndey College.



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