Why Traditional Masculinity is Good for Academia

Male sex (and manliness in particular) should be important criteria for admissions and hiring committees. Here’s why.

Strange things have happened in academia. In the late 1960s, Derrida and Lévi-Strauss were debating psychological universals and the epistemological construction of binary oppositions. Derrida offered nuance, Lévi Strauss depth and precision while Foucault argued that power isn’t just a simple top-down story.

By most accounts, the poststructuralists won. So did the predictable logic of McDonaldization in the realm of teachable ideas. Who could have foreseen that fifty years later —far from getting rid of binary thinking—we can now summarize a social sciences and humanities education in a two-column table:

Bad Perpetrator Good Victim*
The West The Rest
Men Women
White people POCs
Heteronormativity Queer everything
(but also) Gay Trans
(also) Women Femme-presenting, trans women, trans men (this one is complicated)
Settler Indigenous
Israel Islam
(*the more victim identities you can stack up, the more they intersect to make you more virtuous)

 

In 1987, Allan Bloom commented that students no longer learned to understand and love their own histories, and that they studied nothing of substance about other cultures beyond a contentless celebration of their victimization. By the late 2000s, the two-column package shown above had found its way into PowerPoint slides in professional programs like education, social work and counseling psychology. This package (let’s call it grievance studies) has now crept—in diluted form—into science, medicine and clinical psychology.

Masculinity has earned a reputation as a top villain in the two-column grievance package. One increasingly popular version of the masculinity is bad for everyone story is that it is bad for itself. According to recent American Psychological Association guidelines for the treatment of boys and men, traditional masculinity is harmful and must be done away with. (I have commented on these guidelines in more detail here and here). The APA, in classic grievance studies fashion, appears to conflate masculinity with its public health risk factors, and predictably conjures tradition as the main causal link between the male sex and bad stuff. Psychologists are correct to outline a set of common, risky male traits. What is typically missed in the grievance studies picture, however, is that traditional masculinity is protective against—not responsible for—those risks.

Nuanced praise of masculinity is hard to come by these days. One example is the delightfully old-fashioned plea of Harvey Mansfield,  lover of great books and professor of government at Harvard. For Mansfield, reducing manliness to masculinity—whether through empirical science or feminist cultural studies—robs it of its virtue. What I want to emphasize here is that it is important to cultivate the virtues of manliness in academia. I will also argue that academia needs more men. 

Discrimination has acquired a bad name, but, at its core, it is an ethically—though not aesthetically—neutral act. To discriminate is to distinguish: to notice a difference, or bring a pertinent detail to attention. Learning to discriminate is key, for example, to aesthetic appreciation. One can learn to discriminate the sound of period instruments in a baroque concerto, a style of brushstroke in a painting, or which way is north from looking at the sun. In ethical life, learning to discriminate relevant criteria to justify the treatment of a person is an important—and difficult—task. To paraphrase philosopher David Benatar, one can speak of wrongful discrimination when irrelevant criteria are elevated above relevant ones to justify the ethical treatment of a person.

There are good reasons to believe, of course, that sex and gender are irrelevant criteria in determining someone’s academic and intellectual worth. In the widespread practice of openly discriminating against males in academia, for example, there are implicit ways in which females are also wrongfully discriminated against. Elevating one’s sex (a fact of life that lies beyond one’s control) over the quality and integrity of one’s ideas (to which one has dedicated effort and care) rewards the accidental over the agentive: it is, in addition to being impractical, deeply condescending to the talent of women scholars. Suppose a bright and talented student is chosen as a mentee by her male professor, and is given opportunities to present and publish her work. Now suppose that the professor’s criterion for choosing the student was her physical attractiveness, and not her work, to which he might have dedicated only a cursory glance. This widespread problem is a clear incidence of sexism—that is, using sex and its correlates as the wrong criteria to justify differential treatment.

Sex, of course, can be a relevant criterion for differential treatment. Restorative cases of positive sexism provide the most obvious example. If, as was the case in recent history, women were officially barred from certain fields of study on the basis of their sex, then a redressing effort might be justified. Redistribution to counter de facto systemic discrimination is more complex. If, as was the case in recent history, women were often verbally discouraged from entering certain fields of study on the basis of cultural expectations about their sex, redistribution might again be justified. But distinguishing between difference, disadvantage and wrongful discrimination (to use Benatar’s terminology) is no easy task. Some men’s rights activists, for example, see evidence of sexist discrimination in the fact that girls graduate high school and university at much higher rates than boys, that boys are overwhelmingly more likely to receive corporal punishment or be victims of violent crimes, or that boys and men have higher suicide and mortality rates than women. Average biological and psychological differences between males and females, however, likely account for most of these outcomes. Survey research from three continents has shown that, once institutional barriers are removed, females academically outperform males across the board in childhood, adolescence and adulthood. The same is true of longevity. Once progress in medicine has lowered the incidence of mortality in childbirth, males have much poorer health and higher mortality rates at every age, in all periods of life, including in utero. Male sex also correlates with much higher rates of all forms of intellectual and learning disabilities, as well as substance and conduct disorders. The epidemiological conclusions are clear: females on average benefit from psychological, biological and cultural advantages that clearly make them the stronger sex.

Note, however, that, when comparing differences, one can only speak of disadvantages in relation to culturally specific normative goals. Males possess higher relative and absolute upper body strength than females—this is why they can do more pushups on average and lift heavier things. This difference only becomes a female disadvantage if we care about this specific strength. In a hypothetical context in which this difference were ignored, and males and females were evaluated on how many pushups they could perform, one could speak of discrimination against women. This is why males and females don’t usually compete against each other in athletics. Another solution is to recognize normal statistical distributions which, in the case of sports, also include consistent (albeit small) numbers of females strong enough to compete against men. The relevant criterion is then specific strength and skill, not sex. In athletics, average differences are also reflected in levels of average interest: most females are not that interested in competing against males.

The only exception to overall female advantage in academics is mathematical ability, in which females, on average, display slightly less aptitude than males. The overall trend across developed countries is that girls score significantly higher in reading than boys, have similar results in science and lower scores in mathematics—though gender differences are typically attenuated in such scores because men are overrepresented in both lower (low ability) and higher (high ability) tails (this is the so-called dumbbell and Nobel effect). In this case, instituting a two-tier mathematics stream based on sex would be wrongful in terms of our current egalitarian goals—it would prevent the upper-tail percentage of females, who possess the interest and ability to outperform men at mathematics, from flourishing. That many feminists consider the lower percentage of females in mathematics a sign of sexism (despite the fact that women clearly flourish and outnumber men in most other fields, including medicine and biology) reflects this confusion between difference, disadvantage and discrimination. One way to attempt to recruit more women to mathematics would be to lower academic standards. In addition to being condescending and economically disastrous, this solution would probably not change the lower average interest that women have in mathematics. We might also accept, as we do in athletics, that average differences needn’t be measured against a single benchmark, that they diminish at the tails, and that it is not a big deal to most people when they don’t.

Let’s examine this problem in light of the (more significant) low performance of boys across the academic spectrum. In attempting to prevent boys from dropping out of school at high rates, we might also lower academic standards altogether. Whether—disastrous cultural and economic consequences aside—most boys would thereby become more interested in school is an open question. The best solution consistent with our egalitarian goals would be to educate teachers and policymakers about the distinct strengths and needs of boys, while creating more avenues to encourage the inclusion of boys, as well as events, practices, institutions and cultural values that raise sensitivity about boys’ and men’s issues. We might also, as some countries do, invest in trades and para-academic training options that are well-suited to the average male temperament (note that the underrepresentation of women in, e.g., plumbing and forklift truck driving is not typically registered as a sign of oppression by feminists).

Sex-specific opportunities are widely available to girls and women—in the form of women’s clinics; women’s police and courts; women’s scholarships; international campaigns against violence against women and girls; and entire programs of scholarship, art, politics and culture dedicated to women’s studies. Think of the moral—and increasingly political—obligation to embrace feminism: a form of partisan discrimination and positive sexism dedicated to women’s issues, perspectives, needs, etc., while equivalent masculinist partisanship is perceived as an aberration. Consider that the comparatively small field of masculinity studies is mostly committed to a stigmatizing view of males and revisionist history borrowed from feminist partisanship.

Men’s rights activists are thus empirically correct in describing this discrepancy as a form of widespread discrimination against boys and men. Note that men’s higher average propensity towards impulsivity, physical aggression and intellectual disabilities does not constitute disadvantage or discrimination. Such temperamental differences, rather, disadvantage men in modern environments that overwhelmingly solicit a more composed set of attitudes. It is in ignoring this disadvantage in policy and practice that we can speak of discrimination.

So far, the positive discrimination towards women in academia has been largely successful. Women now account for the majority of post-secondary graduates at all levels, including PhDs. In both Canada and the US, male professors still outnumber women, but not by much. In the US, women outnumber men as new hires and tenure-track assistant professors. In Canada, women outperform men in promotion to both associate and full professorships, indicating that the overall trend towards women faculty outnumbering men in all but a few disciplines is largely underway. 

The case for recruiting and retaining more male students is obvious. The case for ensuring that enough males— and manly men, in particular—are hired as professors remains to be demonstrated. Manliness ought to be encouraged and cultivated in male students (regardless of their sexuality), but it would be unjust to elevate it as a strong inclusion criterion at that level. Professors, however, have additional responsibilities to fulfill as mentors and role models.

Let us return to the moral obligation to embrace feminism, the obsession with the toxic dimension of masculinity and the confusing message delivered to young men—young men who already suffer from systemic neglect. The problem lies in the impractical pathologization of the widespread and longstanding cultural traditions that best understand and address men’s temperaments—particularly in relation to men’s differences from women.  It is in keeping with the protective aspects of these traditions that manly men are needed as role models for both young men and women.

Manliness is a character virtue predominantly, but not exclusively, associated with the male sex and with men’s gender roles. Mansfield’s definition of manly virtue is usually summarized as confidence in the face of risk. It encompasses the same average male traits (higher propensities towards risk-taking and aggression, for example) which, in the absence of character education, predictably lead to heavy drinking, brawling, womanizing and all the negative health and crime statistics that tend to afflict the male sex. In Manfield’s formulation, male traits become gentlemanly virtues through “polish and perfection.” A man’s physical strength and appetite for risk can be polished into the strengths of confidence and the ability to reassure, protect and respect those weaker than him. “A gentleman is a man who is gentle out of policy, not weakness,” Mansfield tells us; “a gentleman declines opportunities to push himself on others by means of will, to say nothing of greater brawn.” As role models, manly men thus adopt a style of nurturing distinct from that of most women. Theirs is an autonomy-supporting, risk-encouraging form of mentorship: a firm, respectful, yet gentle variety of caring that inspires strength and autonomy by example.

Manliness is also antithetical—indeed it is the antidote—to toxic masculinity.

In the current climate of widespread anxieties about sex, gender and sexuality on college campuses, the presence of manly gentlemen can offer a reassuring model of confidence and pride in their sex for men, and a composed and safe model of respect for women. These are vanishing qualities of mentorship, which would be beneficial to both male and female students. In particular, gentlemanly mentorship can significantly help reduce anxieties about—and incidences of—sexual assault.

Amid ongoing controversies about increasingly vague definitions of sexual assault (extending, sometimes, even to subjective experiences of perceived intent, such as hearing a joke you find offensive), there is little consensus between those who claim that rates of assault are rampant and rising, and those for whom the only changes have been the subjective thresholds of what is considered abusive. But what if forceful sexual and romantic acts initiated by men were indeed on the rise? If it is the case, academic culture’s unfortunate practice of hiring, encouraging and rewarding weak men may be largely to blame.

Consider a novel cultural type, parodied as a meme in darker corners of the Internet: the soy boy. The Urban Dictionary defines a soy boy, with reference to popular beliefs about soy consumption and increased estrogen, as a man devoid of all masculine qualities: a man who is “a feminist, nonathletic, has never been in a fight, will probably marry the first girl that has sex with him, and likely reduces all his arguments to labeling the opposition as Nazis.”

This stereotype, however crude, offers an eerily precise description of the effeminate, Social Justice loving, self-hating man with loose clothing and bad posture who abounds on college campuses. Whether most (or any) of these boys are sincere ideologues, who celebrate their castration in the privacy of their own sould, is an interesting question. It is just as likely that, in most cases, being a soy boy is a cynical and effortful form of signaling performed for career, social credit and seduction purposes. Virtue-signaling is a socially adaptive way to confer moral status on oneself. It is also an important campus rite of passage, and an exercise in learning to conform to social nuances—a performance likely to be relaxed after university. Mating rituals conducted under this guise during seductively formative years, however, may be more worrisome.

In adopting and signaling (whether sincerely or not) a partisanship that confirms their own castration, soy boys are also rehearsing a weakness of will that may lead to lack of self-control in other domains. The Social Justice generation, it is often said, conflates responsibility with power, and power with badness. Less often mentioned (but read Laura Kipnis for an exception) is that power is sexy. The hard-to-resist temptation of Eros at the core of the student-teacher relationship—recognized by the ancient Greeks—does not figure in current conversations on sexual safety. Consider this unspoken—though widely known—rule of thumb: each semester, a large number of female students will develop crushes on the least unattractive and most charismatic of their male professors. Socrates viewed this childish love as a useful, but temporary, motivation to learn—an illusion that had to be traded for a more mature kind of love. We might extrapolate from this to a more normative claim we ought to teach our students: many of you will fall in love with your professors; when you realize that this love is an illusion, you will be ready to learn. The flipside of this maxim is equally—if not more—important. Yet another unspoken, but widely known, rule is that each semester, the least mature male professors will typically fall in love or lust with the best looking women among their students. To be sure, there might be reason to defend how and why, in some cases, the intimacy of souls afforded by graceful intellectual exchange (notably among professors and graduate students) may be conducive to the kinds of reciprocal feelings we could call love.  But average experiences rarely meet these criteria. In most cases, the feelings developed in such highly restricted, scripted and staged encounters and fraught with projection, and are best described as illusions: illusions of power for the professor, and of power over power for the student. Professors, thus, also ought to be taught their side of the maxim: many of you will fall in love with your students; when you realize this desire is an illusion, you will be ready to teach.

Rather than bureaucratized, condescending, impractical, fragilizing and alienating consent training, male students and professors-in-training could benefit from good manly mentorship. Here’s a question for male professors: how many of you have had the rare honor to be given the respectful, kind and firm advice to keep your dick in your pants by older male mentors?

Academia may thus be facing another ‘silent epidemic’: a plague of weak, impulsive, impressionable, virtue-signalers, who are ill-prepared and ill-disposed to deal with the advances (overt, covert or entirely fantasized) of their female students, and may act too quickly and foolishly in initiating sexual and romantic contact.

This is why it’s important to discriminate in favor of manliness in academic hiring. Some might object that academic merit, rather than character virtues, still constitutes the most important criterion in hiring. However, though officially unrecognized and otherwise unfashionable, virtues play an important role in impression formation and hiring decisions. Take, for example, the importance of integrity, friendliness and humility. Detecting character virtues is the main justification of the effort and expense of in-person interviews, which typically include effortful performances and silent evaluations at informal events, such as dinners, cocktails and long walks through campus. Manliness should be deemed as important as integrity, humility and academic merit in considering male candidates—of which a high enough number needs to be guaranteed.

The final objection one might anticipate is that this traditional sex-role virtue model does not account for the priorities of gender-nonconforming folks. I have addressed transgender rights elsewhere. Given that the vast majority of trans folks identify with one of two genders, and not something in between, they should benefit from the same protective aspects of manliness as everyone else.

Time to man up, ladies and gentlemen!

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15 comments

  1. Men have more rights and resources and sheer freedom at their disposal than at any time in history.
    And this guy thinks he speaks for “men” (ha ha ha- ) and tries to demand things and attitudes from others? Major personhood fail. You cannot better your life by complaining you want more. You have all the freedom in the world- make a good life without being jealous like this.
    You are literally demanding that you be sympathized with like a little girl. Literally.

  2. Well thank God someone is publicly discussing the need for male discipline. As a single female dating this is what I find other women crying out for in groups, blogs and other communities I frequent. Of course male professors would be engaged in a sexual power drama with female students. Nothing wrong with that from my point of view. As long as it is, as the author says, a stage in maturation. Why are there no older men telling younger men to keep their dicks in their pants? Where did these kinds of conversations go? It’s a basic conclusion to draw as someone moves through time and understands risks more fully. If there are no public modern narratives around what kind of manliness men can be proud of, described by men who have personally lived through various psychological and cultural stages, then how how can men be as strong as women? We have to do this. It makes being a woman a lonely business. I would add that I don’t know about confidence in the face of risk being inherently masculine. I see women do this all the time. Maybe in aggregate there could be a conclusion about physical vs social/emotional risk being gendered, but even then I see a lot of women pushing themselves. Thanks for the article. I enjoyed it.

  3. The idea that sex abuse on college campuses has any connection to soy-boyishness takes about 5 seconds of contemplation to recognize as nonsense. Sex abuse is old, soy-boys are new, and the fact the author dislikes the posture of recent students has zero relevance to the widely known patterns that extend back decades.

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  4. i dont follow all the arguments but an interesting article nonetheless.

    lowering admission requirements (openly done for indians applying to univ programs in canada) is not only “condescending” to the target group, it taints real achievement (Type II error?). this is the crux of the affirmative action debate and the bane of scotus’s clarence thomas. Would you seek the advice of a doctor or lawyer who would not have been admitted to their program but for the colour of their skin? Should differences in opportunity be equalized according to socio-economic measures?

  5. Ray Andrews is correct. As for the predictable claims to claims of victimhood, he most cursory googling of my writings should make it plain to even the most illiterate of readers that I would never promote victimhood of any kind– on pragmatic grounds: it makes people feel worse and increases conflict. But one ought to be able to speak in favour of “special interests groups” without it being read as echo-chambery, victimy, or worse, as competition for victim status. As it stands, everyone gets their sacred special interest group except for men and boys. There might be some radical alterity at stakes here — as in it might be difficult for men and women to understand each others’ specific issues. It is obvious to 99% of men that they [men] are facing some pretty severe disadvantages which, in some spaces (schools, courts, healthcare) border on systemic discrimination. What I want to do besides opening dialogues is write and offer advice by men, for men, to help restore some pride in the male sex.

    1. It is precisely this aversion to victimhood culture (as well as virtue signaling) which make all of Dr. Vessiere’s articles a pleasure to read!

  6. Note how the woke consider it void ab initio for a male to claim victimhood. The evidence — proof positive in fact — that men are discriminated against, openly and proudly, counts as nothing against the Grand Narrative in which it is an axiom that white, heterosexual males CANNOT be anything other than Privileged Oppressors. Evidence to the contrary is irrelevant, this is a matter of doctrine.

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    1. @Anonymous: I didn’t get that at all. The gist of this article was that manliness can be an antidote to the toxic masculinity and call-out culture that is apparently pervasive in academia.

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      1. But how does this make sense? Traditional manliness is where the problems started. The proposed solution here is going back to traditional manliness. The bottom line, then, is that everything was ok in the past and the complaints wrong?

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