As readers may know, I have just been on vacation. On one sunny day in beautiful East Hampton, I was sitting on a street bench waiting for my companion (described in one comment by a reader of this blog as ‘my long-suffering wife’) and was watching a group of children who were playing on the pavement as they also waited. They were all probably around 8 to 10 years old. Two boys, rather big for their age, moved in on a rather pretty looking but smaller girl and started taunting her, calling her a ‘dwarf’ and pushing her once or twice. I was just contemplating whether I should intervene when the girl raised herself to her full (but not substantial) height, fixed her eyes on the boys in a steely gaze and said, ‘Imbeciles!’ I am certain the boys had no idea what the word meant, but they both suddenly backed off, looked sheepish, and sat down on the ground almost disoriented. I relaxed again. She didn’t need my help. In fact, what I had just witnessed seemed rather symbolic.
In a post I wrote about a year ago, I commented on the growing insecurity of men and asked what it might mean, in social terms. It is an ongoing issue, and today again we had confirmation of that in reports that girls are out-performing boys in Leaving Certificate results in almost all subjects. Nor is this a phenomenon typical for or unique to Ireland: similar trends are known to exist in the United Kingdom, the United States, India, Pakistan, and pretty much everywhere else.
Some commentators – wrongly, I believe – conclude that what this means is that the feminist agenda, or the policy to achieve equal opportunities for women, has gone too far and that men are now the disadvantaged. When we look at who occupies key positions of influence and power the picture is not much different from what it was 20 years ago; most corporate board rooms are overwhelmingly occupied by men, as are government ministries, religious prelatures, and so forth. The changes that have taken place have had their greatest effect at lower levels. But that is not to say that there isn’t a problem. It is clear that young males in particular are now disproportionately chronic under-achievers and as a result are often alienated from society; some of them drift into anti-social behaviour or worse, particularly in lower socio-economic groups.
There are a number of causes and so also a number of measures that should be taken. But one of the key reasons for this trend appears to be the lack of male role models for young boys in their formative years. Men are often not sufficiently visible in the home, as they are either excessively absent at work, or absent in bars and other such establishments. When children go to school, they will sometimes only ever experience women as teachers in their junior schools. These are trends we do need to take seriously and to try to reverse. Perhaps one place to start is to tackle student preferences regarding teacher training – we need to persuade more young men to think of a teaching career, so that there is a greater gender balance and more of a chance that boys will see that learning and intellectual achievement is not something peculiarly female and possibly ‘unmanly’. We need to do this urgently.