The Atlantic April 2020 Issue: The Commons

The Miseducation of the American Boy

Peggy Orenstein wrote about why boys crack up at rape jokes, think having a girlfriend is “gay,” and still can’t cry—and why we need to give them new and better models of masculinity (January/February).

To the extent that “toxic masculinity” is real, most men—clearly not all men—age out of it as they mature. Also, the kind of masculinity Peggy Orenstein describes is much less evident in other groups of teenage boys. Ms. Orenstein’s sample skewed almost entirely to young, white athletes. But had she spoken with members of the debate team, for instance, or the drama club, or the school band, she might have opened a window to a very different landscape.

Harold G. Knutson
Chicago, Ill.

While Orenstein brings up some good points, the fact that her sense of humor, life experiences, and perspective differ so much from those of a teenage boy means that she is often seeing male culture from a female cultural perspective. As a teacher of teenage boys, I don’t think that teenagers making offensive jokes, testing boundaries, or joking around with one another is necessarily as ominous as she says.

Mary Vansuch
St. Louis, Mo.

I am an English teacher at an all-boys private school outside Baltimore. Peggy Orenstein’s incisive, observational piece struck me so much that I assigned it to my 60 senior students. The discussion that followed was one of the most rewarding and interesting of my teaching career.

Many of my students held a belief that when adults talked about boys’ lack of vulnerability, they were actually suggesting a lack of emotional complexity. Of course, we adults understand that external vulnerability and internal complexity are different, but it seems urgent that this nuance be properly expressed to boys so as to enable more productive conversation.

Students largely agreed with the observation that they do not speak out against peers engaging in demeaning speech. “No one changes when someone just tells them they’re wrong,” one student said. Perhaps adults need to show that minds can be changed, and that such changes are something to celebrate.

Finally, young men are in desperate need of role models. “I know there are bad forms of masculinity,” one of my brightest students said, “but I’m kind of at a loss for what a good version looks like.”

I do not want to make the frankly ridiculous conservative claim that “young men are the victims,” but I did walk away from these conversations feeling deeply sorry for these boys. We’re leaving them dangerously immature and unprepared for adult life. Boys understand themselves—good, bad, and ugly—a little more than we give them credit for, and that knowledge concerns them. It should not only concern us—the adults around them—it should impel an immediate change in our actions and attitudes.

Daniel Maloney
Baltimore, Md.