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Have We Forgotten How to Raise Boys Into Men?

Fashioning men has never been easy, but today it seems particularly tough. Boys need heroes to embody the everlasting qualities of manhood: honor, duty, valor, and integrity. Without such role models, boys will naturally choose perpetual childhood over the rigors of becoming a man—as many women, teachers, coaches, employers, and adults in authority can quickly attest to today. 

Too many boys and men waste time in pointless and soulless activities, unmindful of their responsibilities, uncaring in their pursuits. Have we forgotten how to raise men, how to lead our boys into manhood?

In "The Book of Man," I try to chart a clearer course, offering a positive, encouraging, uplifting, realizable idea of manhood, redolent of history and human nature, and practical for contemporary life. 

For boys to become men they need to be guided, through advice, habit, instruction, example, and correction. It is true in all ages. 

Someone once characterized the two essential questions Plato posed as: Who teaches the children, and what do we teach them? When the older generation fails to properly teach the younger males (and females) coming behind them, trouble surely follows.

Today, for the first time in history, women are better educated, more ambitious, and arguably more successful than men. Society has rightly celebrated the ascension of women. We said, “You go, girl” and they went. We praise the rise of women but what will we do about what appears to be the very real decline of men?

The data shows that there is trouble with men today. In 1970, men earned 60% of all college degrees. In 1980, the figure fell to 50%, by 2006 it was 43%. Women now surpass men in college degrees by almost three to two. Women's earnings grew 44% from 1970 to 2007, compared with 6% growth for men. In 1950, five percent of men at the prime working age were unemployed. Today twenty percent are not working, the highest ever recorded.

Perhaps most worrisome are the cultural indicators. Men are more distant from a family or their children then they have ever been. The out of wedlock birthrate is over forty percent in America. In 1960, only 11% of children in the U.S. lived apart from their fathers. In 2010, that share had risen to 27%. Men are also less religious than ever before. According to Gallup polling, 39% of men reported attending church regularly in 2010, compared to 47% of women.

But you don’t need numbers. Just ask young women about men today, and you’re likely to hear how many believe their males counterparts are more like male children, refusing to grow up. Too many young women today are asking, “Where are the good single men?” Contemporary men exhibit a maturity deficit, and are in danger of falling further behind the more well adjusted women of today.

And so in our time especially there is a need for guidance, and the important role of men for boys is a particularly acute need. Of course there are successes. Every day great boys are raised to be great men, but there are other cases as well. 

Confusions regarding manhood abound, including confusion about a proper understanding of virility. Fathers are missing from boys’ lives in devastatingly high numbers. Children are exposed to a dizzying array of cultural signals about what it means to be a man, signals both good and bad. Our society is moving forward so rapidly that it has forgotten much good from the past. And women are beginning to take the place of men in many ways. 

As Hanna Rosin points out in her seminal article, “The End of Men,” women have now surpassed men in several categories that reflect economic and cultural standing. In American colleges, for every two men who graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree, three women receive a B.A. Women now dominate thirteen of the fifteen job categories expected to grow the most in the coming decade. This has led some to ask: do we even need men?

So what’s the problem? Increasingly, the messages to boys about what it means to be a man are confusing. They mistake the machismo of the street gangs for courage. They fill the vacancy left by missing fathers with video games, television, and music. Gay culture, with its flamboyant display, often challenges traditional masculinity. Hollywood films glorify male characters who refuse to grow up. Too many men today treat women like toys, easily discarded when things get complicated. Through all these different and conflicting signals, our boys must decipher what it means to be a man, and for many of them it is harder to figure out.

We need to fight back against this culture and send our boys and young men a clear and achievable message of what it means to be a man. The founding virtues – industriousness, marriage, and religion, are still the basis for male empowerment and achievement. It may be time to say to a number of our young men, “Get off the video games five hours a day, pull yourself together, get a challenging job, and get married.” It’s time to bring back men.

William J. Bennett is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood. (Thomas Nelson)" Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

William J. Bennett is the author of “Is College Worth It: A Former United States Secretary of Education and a Liberal Arts Graduate Expose the Broken Promise of Higher Education.” He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.