This past week The Wall Street Journal published an article about the crisis facing men with regards to higher education. In the article, the writer noted that Baylor University actually recruits women, male applicants’ mothers, to make sure young male applicants get their transcripts in on time. Apparently young men tend to be laggards in this area of responsibility.
More could be said about this particular problem, but I want to focus on one line of analysis a commentator related regarding young college-aged men, “What I see is there is a kind of hope deficit.” I want to point out some history behind this moral deficit and ask Christians to think anew about a solution to reviving this virtue and others for men.
Gender-focused moral ideals sprang to the fore in American university life largely after the Civil War, as my colleague Andrea Turpin has pointed out in A New Moral Vision: Gender, Religion, and the Changing Purposes of American Higher Education, 1837-1917.1 Turpin found that early evangelicals did not make gender an important source of moral ideals (e.g., focus on what it means to be a lady or gentleman). In fact, as the creation of the first coeducational colleges by Christian communities, influenced by the Second Great Awakening, attests (e.g., Oberlin, Hillsdale, Franklin, Baylor), evangelically-minded Christians saw fulfilling the Great Commission as much more important than segregating education or setting forth gendered moral ideals.
The major purveyors of the gendered moral ideal were the liberal Protestants who dominated higher education after the Civil War. As Turpin writes, “contrary to what present-day Americans might expect, the religious liberals who came to lead the men’s, women’s, and coeducational institutions of this era articulated the moral purposes of collegiate education in more gendered terms than had past evangelical leaders of antebellum men’s colleges or that era’s few top institutions for women.”2
Thus, instead of seeking to transform cultural ideas about ladies and gentlemen to be more in line with scriptural virtues, they often changed gender ideals to meet progressive ends—or the older ends of status, power, and privilege. To adjust to the expanding number of female and coed institutions, male colleges began the process of stripping their old denominational identities for something less “parochial.” Turpin maintains, “[T]hey began to stress components of moral formation specific to male social roles instead of inculcating the gender-neutral character traits earlier believed to enable all people to relate properly to God.”3 Consequently, the terms “gentleman” and “lady” were used extensively in the nineteenth century to convey these ideals.4
Two things in particular, however, later ended up undermining these gendered moral ideals. The rise of the professional identity in the early twentieth century ended up taking the place of the gentleman ideal. Thus, professors began to insist that one follow the moral code of the professional instead of the gentleman5. Later, the term “lady” also began slowly diminishing consistently in the mid-twentieth century.6 When speaking at a top women’s college in 1992, Nora Ephran proudly proclaimed, “Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady.”7 Indeed, one scholar described “lady” as a feminist four letter word.8
Today, “lady” is used largely a derided ideal (e.g., the popular movie Titanic was largely a deconstruction of the historic view) or tongue in cheek label (Lady Gaga). Ironically, one of the few positive uses of the term that still existed was discontinued this past week when Baylor’s women’s basketball team decided to stop being called “Lady Bears” (no reasons for this decision were given). The gendered academic moral ideal today for most women is to be a feminist, and numerous arguments now exist about different moral visions associated with feminist ideals.
Piling on Men with Toxic Masculinity
Interestingly, and this brings us back to the crisis with college men, there has been no positive moral vision formulated for men. Unlike the gendered moral ideal switch from ladies to feminists, there are no new identity terms or phrases that set forth the moral virtues of what a man should be. Instead, student life staff today give men a phrase that summarizes the new campus campaign about what a man should not be. The term now used in hundreds of peer-reviewed journal articles and in seminars held in Title IX offices to describe this effort is “toxic masculinity.”
Thus, it should be no shock to find that one recent study found that the general definition of masculinity is contracting to no longer include moral terms or virtues. In fact, “When asked what traits society values most in boys, only 2 percent of male survey respondents said honesty and morality.”9 Educational leaders now rail against “toxic masculinity” in the least masculine time in the history of higher education, but they offer no alternative positive moral vision of what it means to be a good man.
Not surprisingly, one summary of moral development during emerging adulthood found that the perception that emerging adults as lost in moral confusion, disengagement, and delinquency “is especially true of emerging-adult men.”10 Academia, and our culture at large, has left men without moral vision. No wonder they are turning their back on higher education in record numbers. Why would they pay for college to have someone their mom’s age tell them about their gender’s toxic behavior (in addition to not getting transcript in on time)? No wonder they gobble up Jordan Peterson or Ayn Rand and hunger for the unfettered justice of John Wayne for moral inspiration. The contemporary university has starved them of moral inspiration and ideals.
The End of Gender-Based Moral Ideals?
Today, the important question for higher education is whether these new developments will rid students of the old gendered moral tradition and leave men, both men and women, or neither without morally shaped gendered ideals.
There is a possibility it will influence both genders. In interviews with college students, When asking college students in interviews what it means to be a good man or woman, I find students’ responses often follow the pattern of these students:
Interviewer: “What does it mean to be a good woman?”
Students: “To be a good woman is basically the same thing to me as being a good person.”
Interviewer: Can you describe what it means to be a good man?
Students: I don’t know, this question is interesting…I feel like it doesn’t, the question shouldn’t be what makes a good man…, but what makes a good person?
For these students, perhaps there is something of the older Christian insistence that gender-based moral ideals are not as important as broader ideals connected to other moral identities (which for Christians involves being like Christ–an ideal for both genders). Perhaps Christians should celebrate the death of ladies and gentlemen and renew our focus on the admonition: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1).
Although we have discarded the old gendered moral tradition associated with gentlemen and ladies, and even Microsoft Word suggests that one stop using those terms, the identity wars look to continue even more with a coming clash of older feminism and the new gender fluid movement. More likely, as has happened with LGBTQ+, certain moral tribes will spring up around each of the different identity groups.
What is different about these movements, however, is that they do not involve discussions about what it means to be a good “fill in the blank with the sexual identity of choice.” The new gender identity movements focus on obtaining power, respect, and rights, rather than achieving a particular moral ideal of identity excellence. Every gender and sexual identity now simply fights for an equitable distribution of power and privilege. Other virtues beyond social justice are dropped by the wayside. In this respect, perhaps one could argue that these new movements have largely taken the old fallen approach to moral gender identity development that focuses on obtaining power and status. Calling men to be gentlemen at least called them to bear one Christian virtue (gentleness) and often others as well (e.g., self-control).
In fact, as C.S. Lewis would remind us, gender-based moral codes can serve important purposes. This is why C.S. Lewis wrote, “I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite skeptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat,’ than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers [cheaters].”11 Gender-based moral ideals can train the emotions, and as Lewis observed, “Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism.” In other words, although educating young men to be gentlemen rarely supplies the deep-seeded habits and virtue we want Christian men to acquire, it does provide an important cultural vision and level of habitual virtue that sustains a community against baser animal instincts, especially misdirected power and ambition. It also supplies them with a basic moral vision toward which to strive.
Plus, although Scripture does not set forth gendered moral ideals regarding virtually all Christian virtues (e.g., both genders should demonstrate Christ’s virtue and the fruit of the Spirit, including submitting to one another, Eph. 5:21), we should not deny the empirical reality that how men and women demonstrate God’s virtues or struggle with worldly vices may vary based on gender or culture. In fact, it is interesting to see Christian writers at the top of Amazon’s list of “Best Seller’s in Men’s Gender Studies,” likely because the Church is one place we can have this gender-focused conversation. Perhaps we have more to offer this pressing need than we, meaning Christian academics, realize. Thus, in addition to analyzing these works critically at times when they become too culturally captive, perhaps we should also be mining them for common grace gold—for our own institutions and the broader academic world. If we can provide a moral vision that attracts more men to college, admissions officers around North America would be grateful. More importantly, it could also contribute to male moral flourishing and renewed hope.
Some sentences for this post were taken from my forthcoming book, The Dismantling of Moral Education: How Higher Education Reduced the Human Identity (Rowman and Littlefield, 2022, forthcoming).
- Andrea Lindsay Turpin, A New Moral Vision: Gender, Religion, and the Changing Purposes of American Higher Education, 1837-1917 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016).
- Turpin, A New Moral Vision, 4.
- Turpin, A New Moral Vision, 27.
- Google n-gram search of “gentleman” and “lady
- Perry L. Glanzer, The Dismantling of Moral Education: How Higher Education Reduced the Human Identity (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming, 2022).
- Google n-gram search of “lady.”
- “Nora Ephron’s Commencement Address to Wellesley Class Of 1996,” HuffPost, June 26, 2012, accessed June 4, 2018, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/26/norah-ephrons-commencement-96-address_n_1628832.html
- Reid Boyd, Elizabeth, “Lady: A Feminist Four Letter Word?” Women and Language 35, no. 2 (2012): 35–52.
- Peggy Orenstein, “The Miseducation of the American Boy,” The Atlantic, January/February 2020.
- Laura M. Padilla-Walker, “Moral Development during Emerging Adulthood,” in The Oxford Handbook of Emerging Adulthood, ed. Jeffrey Arnett (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 449.
- C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 35.