It’s long been obvious that my classes are dominated by young women. Since I teach writing, I often ask my students about their reasons for coming to school and about their families. It’s common to find young women who plan on becoming teachers (or nurses); often, these young women have a boyfriend or husband who isn’t in college and works in a local plant or as a carpenter or a plumber.
This new pattern has become a part of the lore of university teaching and now a piece in the Atlantic (“The End of Men“) confirms the existence of a long term trend, too. Hana Rosin, the author, would like to make the case that this represents a change in centuries old pattern of gender in the west. I find that longer term argument less persuasive, but the article is still worth reading.
There’s no doubt about the patriarchy, of course, but it can be difficult to look past the rigid gender roles that took root in the Victorian era. It’s hard to know just what the roles of men and women were in, say, medieval Europe. Is a priest or a poet a strongly masculine role? I think gender has always been looser than some public discourse suggests. Mick Jagger is, after all, an icon of masculinity.
Still, something does seem to be happening among my younger brothers, at least as indicated by the numbers Rosin sites as well as my own experiences. The anti-intellectualism of U.S. culture, often colored by machismo, has taken on a decidedly chauvinistic– and self destructive– flavor. The more or less organic development of capitalism is away from physical work and towards mental work. So there’s a reactionary element involved and a resistance to modernity.
I am not sure why this anti-intellectualism and anti-modernity is so appealing to young men, although I remember what it felt like. None of the men in my large, extended family, was attracted to college. (Even the women saw it strictly as a necessity.) We all wanted to work with our hands, and to be outside; we wanted the visceral, immediate contact with the physical world you cannot get in an office.
I hear a self-preservationist note in the statistics, a sense that these young men are resisting a kind of alienation that they believe has a feminine cast. It’s a misguided notion. Intellectual work can be as immediately, physically satisfying as putting up Sheetrock. Effective teaching can have a legitimate paternal or a maternal cast. The larger question, then, isn’t about gender as much as it is about the meaning of work.