Around the turn of the millennium, American society realized a looming crisis: the lack of female representation in STEM fields. But today we are witnessing a crisis of male leadership in a variety of workplaces. From the president to CEOs of major companies to actors and power players in Hollywood, the past several months have exposed the toxic work environments they preside over or worsen in scandal after scandal. Though different in nature, this crisis is of equal importance as the STEM shortage. Yet, to date, no prominent solutions or interventions have been seriously proposed. In contrast, a quick Google search brings up dozens of programs for girls in STEM, but not one national program appears for boys in the arts and humanities.
Why not? Could we not take a similar approach for boys and humanities? Could we create programs and mentor networks that encourage boys and young men to pursue professional careers in the arts or humanities? Might this effort even bolster attempts to get girls interested in STEM? Even if boys don’t go into the arts and humanities as a profession, wouldn’t greater exposure to them help them make better decisions and become stronger citizens, workers and leaders?
How dire is the situation? The latest indicators of the demographics and earnings of public school humanities teachers -- most of whom are women and many of whom aren't paid well -- underscore that we need more men in the arts and humanities. Although philosophy and religious studies all grant more degrees to men than women, all other arts and humanities disciplines encounter a reverse situation. To make matters worse, The Humanities Indicators report that, “As of 2015, women earned 61 percent of all master’s and professional-practice degrees in the humanities and 54 percent of the doctoral degrees in the field.” And the latest report on public school teachers found that "76 percent of humanities teachers were women, the largest share among subject specialists." When male K-12 role models barely exist in these disciplines, what message does that send to our young boys and men?
Such numbers should make us pause and ask ourselves how these imbalances are affecting our diversity and inclusion efforts, innovation and design, and, yes, by extension, market demands and equity in pay. And what about the effects on politics, technology and our desperate need for a more caring and compassionate world? We must ask ourselves: What needs to change to allow our young men to feel comfortable and socially accepted in their choice of pursuing a career in the arts and humanities? What do we in higher education, we as a society, lose when we do not encourage our boys and men to pursue degrees and careers in the arts and humanities? And how can more programs in support of these fields help shift the gender imbalance in STEM education? Could a more holistic and balanced approach provide more mutually beneficial results?
Don’t get me wrong. We still need more women in STEM, and we need more diversity over all, but those projects are well underway. This is about the consequences of a society whose men do not sufficiently study or participate in the arts and humanities.
STEM for Girls, Poetry for Boys
You may have heard of Girls Who Code, the National Girls Collaborative Project, the National Math and Science Initiative, the Women in Engineering Proactive Network or the Million Women Mentors. Those programs are increasing the number of STEM graduates over all and injecting some much-needed diversity into the fields. Young girls are realizing they can have careers in STEM, and women today are succeeding in such male-dominated industries. While many hurdles persist, the attitudes that kept women out of STEM are changing and being discussed in public.
But our society suffers when boys and men are actively discouraged from pursuing their interests in the arts and humanities. The cycle of toxic masculinity starts early. Boys are often told not to cry or show emotion. They are socially trained to repress it, and they take pride in this false resilience. Just as girls are often ridiculed or bullied by families and peers, boys taking an interest in the “feminine” interests, like art or literature, receive similar treatment. So where, then, are the programs and mentoring networks that encourage boys and men to pursue professional careers in the arts and humanities? Such an intervention could ultimately strengthen society struggling under the pressures of great, sweeping technological change.
Men have a lot to gain from the arts and humanities. Even if a boy never grows up to be a sculptor or a playwright, a philosopher or a translator, what they will have is broader human spectra from which to enrich their lives and ours. Alternately, as is too often the case today, if you are a man and your fellow men discourage you from these ideas at every turn, you lose access to them. When men reinforce this en masse, their general spectrum of expression and ideas becomes rigid and stunted, thus limiting and endangering society as a whole. This, unfortunately, is what we see playing out on the national political stage today. If we are to remedy this, we must rethink our approach to men and the humanities.
Cops and Docs: “What Do You See?”
So, if we need humanities programs for young men, what would they look like? One model comes from the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. In an annual event called “Cops and Docs,” accomplished medical professionals and highly trained police officers take a group trip to the museum. Over the course of the evening, mixed groups of cops and docs look at paintings, sculptures and other works of art, and they then share their answers to a pretty basic question: What do you see?
Here’s a sampling of their takeaways from the program: “Make careful observation a habit. Learn to describe what you see. Allow a different interpretation of the observation. Understand that one scene can have several plausible explanations. Avoid tunnel vision. Exercise creative thinking skills.” No matter what sort of leadership position you have, these are great lessons to learn -- lessons that will undoubtedly benefit young men and society in an increasingly complex world.
Another program, “The Art of Perception,” takes police detectives, FBI agents and high-ranking Secret Service and CIA executives to well-known museums and galleries like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection to observe works by Picasso, Caravaggio, Edward Hopper and other masters. Program creator Amy E. Herman says the exercise is “not about looking at art. It’s about talking about what you see.”
But it’s also about what you don’t see. Even the most skilled investigators in the country miss crucial elements of the works. Other times, they struggle to describe what’s right in front of them. During their visit, Herman encourages them to shift perspectives and see things in a new way. Participants report that the new ways of seeing have opened their eyes to fresh approaches toward evaluating evidence on the job.
The benefits of such practices extend to the relatively more mundane world of white-collar workers. A highly creative leader at Royal Dutch/Shell named Steve Miller would assemble diverse teams of colleagues for group visits to Shell operations, customer sites and other business-related settings. Workers with different backgrounds, expertise and concerns got on buses and toured the various locations across Europe where his business unit was based. After the tour, they talked about what they saw, writing down what they observed. Later, they went over what they learned from the visits.
What people saw was a function of who they were and what they specialized in. And what everybody learned together was far richer and deeper than what any individual would have learned on their own. This wide array of perspectives opened their eyes to more creative and diverse possibilities.
Imagine now, if those same professionals had been engaging in such activities since their youth. Imagine how different our workplaces would be when filled with men who grew up going to museums and sharing differing perspectives with their peers. Imagine those experiences underlined by deep and critical thinking, as well as research in the arts and humanities. How would they treat members of the opposite sex or different gender? If they had access to other ways of finding meaning, would they readily accept narrow-minded ideologies of sexism, racism or xenophobia? Would they feel the same fear they do now?
The humanities are for everyone -- not just women. If we are to uphold social values and continue to lead as a nation, we all need exposure to them. As the above example shows, a clever repackaging of the humanities can enhance the practice and appreciation of them without alienating skeptical men.
The point is that we must continue to support, promote and defend the arts and humanities, because they hold the key to a better future. Humanities education fills out the full spectrum of our capacity as human beings by helping us join with others, effectively share and create new ideas and perspectives, and understand different circumstances and ways of being. The crisis of the present demands a long-term solution, and the crises of the future demand the skills the humanities offer. Let’s do for boys in the humanities what we’ve done for girls in STEM so they can make a better workplace -- and a better world.