Perhaps Feminism Needs the Men’s Studies Department

It is taken as a joke, when the guy in Indoctrinate U visits different universities and asks where the men’s studies office is.  His argument seems to be that it shouldn’t be a joke — that equality requires such a facility.  I see that, but I find a different message.  It seems to me that women have been disserved, not only by the old absence of women’s studies, but also by this more newly recognized absence of men’s studies.

The original concept was that academia has traditionally been structured and dominated by men, and that special attention to women was therefore needed if we were to move toward a more equitable academic environment.  That seems reasonable.  But there has been another, less noticed academic tendency, over the centuries, and it has had serious adverse effects upon men and women alike.

As just noted, the attention has been upon dominant men in places like the university.  And yet, obviously enough, most men do not achieve positions of dominance in universities and elsewhere.  What about them?

In a university classroom, there may be five, ten, twenty, or more men.  And yet, at most, only one is dominant.  Traditionally, this is accepted because he is seen as older and wiser, and is endowed with superior credentials.  It is assumed that the others must be subordinate, for the time being, but that their turn will come when they, too, acquire age, wisdom, and credentials.

As my own experience suggests, the university tends to resist challenges to this arrangement.  Among other things, it ordinarily offers no formal credit, much less credentialing, for experience and other learning — even if such experience and/or learning surpass that of the professor.  Through its odd segregation from ordinary life, the university has been able to prevent challenges, within itself, to perpetual dominance by a smallish number of men — and, increasingly, women — who are not always especially bright, fair, and scrupulous.

In its present form, the university is thus modeled upon a type of traditional family arrangement.  It is a relatively singleminded, authority-based training ground for young people who will eventually be expected to leave.  The few who remain or return are apt to be dominated by those who are older and/or more powerful.  Such domination can continue for decades, until the elder finally fades from the scene.  This pattern tends to hold even when the family would be better served by promptly sidelining abusive elders.  In this sense, the university is a fundamentally conservative institution, preserving tradition and privilege over periods of many years, at the expense of individual rights, demonstrated merit, and organizational transformation.

Within that setting, to continue the family metaphor, one might observe a certain male type or tendency that enjoys a harem.  It does seem ironic that a discipline like social work, containing so few males, should still find itself complaining about the disproportionate concentration of males at the top.  This harsh, old-style feminist hostility to males in general may have inadvertently made life easier for the entrenched senior men who remain.  Other men who would have challenged them have been eliminated, not only by the traditional family-like model’s tendency to push out the youngsters and the paucity of respect for potential challengers possessing legitimate external learning, but also by social work’s de facto antipathy toward male newcomers.  The effect may be to favor hard men who cannot be dislodged over gentler ones who may be more genuinely sympathetic to women’s perspectives.  These are matters on which men’s studies might have offered some counterbalancing.

One approach, in the social work context, has been to wait until senior male faculty and administrators retire, and (of choice but also perhaps of necessity) to replace them with females.  Very well; leadership in social work education then becomes as heavily female as practitioners in the social work profession, and as unresponsive to male clients.  Yet social work remains a backwater within academia as a whole, wherein processes of comprehensive male expulsion are apt to take a while longer.  In effect, the complaint of male dominance is merely transferred from the level of the social work dean to that of the university dean.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, there is a problem.  By casting itself as a traditional groomer for employment, social work education — indeed, the university as a whole — has put itself in jeopardy of irrelevance.  Consider, in particular, the university’s preoccupation with feminism.  In a New York Times article, Jodi Kantor observes that “many [female] members of the younger generation have stopped listening” to feminists, such as those in social work.  The specific view being rejected, Kantor says, is the claim that “you can have it all” — that, in other words, women can be happy and successful mothers and career women and everything else they want to be.

Kantor quotes Anne-Marie Slaughter for the view that the “have it all” mantra is “simply airbrushing reality.”  Most women cannot have it all.  And a men’s studies program could have told them why not.  In a harshly competitive, largely unwelcoming workforce, many men find it difficult to have even a fair part of “it all,” despite working hours that many women do not want to work.  According to Kantor, even the famously driven Sheryl Sandberg actually leaves work at 5:30 PM to eat dinner with her kids.  You can’t be home to tuck your child in if you’re doing an all-nighter for a demanding client.  There are many worthy pursuits in this life; the point here is just that you can’t do them all simultaneously.  This has been obvious but, again, the university has provided scant counterweight to this feminist dream.

Clinging to that dream, Slaughter calls for change in “the baseline expectations about when, where, and how work will be done.”  She is right about such a need, but mistaken in her focus.  For her, this change of expectations needs to occur in the workplace — in, among other things, the question of whether people can work at home rather than having to stay at the office late into the evening.  But this is a limited solution.  People who cannot stay late at work will be genuinely handicapped for some purposes; so will those who go home and try to multitask.  Nor is working into the wee hours at home such a great alternative.  Slaughter thinks that employers should not subtly privilege nonparents over parents.  But in the hypercompetitive world that Slaughter implicitly endorses, why should employers seek anything but those employees who are most willing to sacrifice everything else to focus on the job?

The answer, not provided by Slaughter, is that employers do not have all the answers to life.  This is the larger regard in which the university risks irrelevance.  The change of baseline expectations sought by Slaughter are best expected to occur, not in the workplace (where, for most workers, decades of work-life concern have been largely ineffectual), but rather at the societal level.  And for that to happen, women may need to rediscover life priorities that have been distorted by is, for many, a misguided focus on becoming like men in the workforce.  Slaughter rightly recognizes that “women who opt out have no need to apologize”; she just seems to understate the breadth of what she calls “the different circumstances facing women and men,” particularly in the area of life priorities.  And here, again, men’s studies could have been providing input derived from generations of real-life experience and societal expectations.

In the employment-oriented view of life, within the university and elsewhere, junior men serve senior men.  The unfavored ones — wrong skills, wrong age, wrong skin color, wrong culture, wrong views, etc. — are let go, to fend for themselves, go to prison, rot away, or die.  This, in our society, passes for normalcy and common sense.  Leading feminists, wanting to be like leading men, have accepted this prioritization.  They have wound up in jobs like Slaughter’s.  And other women have followed.  This has been consistent with the general fascination with employment exhibited by many women.  As many men have discovered, a man with a good job is often seen as having more worth than a man with a bad job or no job, even if the jobs are theft and those holding them are scoundrels.  And so these are the sorts of people whom many women aspire to become.

In society generally, as in the microcosm of the university, men seen as inferior have been the bellwether.  They have been the indicators by which women should have noticed, decades ago, that employment was being inappropriately glorified, to the disproportionate benefit of a small minority of powerful senior men and a larger cadre of sycophantic juniors.  Women were not excessively troubled by declines in male employment and real wages, however, because meanwhile the women were becoming more able to fend for themselves.  There was no timely rise of men’s studies programs — which, in a critically thinking university, should have happened as soon as women’s studies programs came into existence — and therefore no programmatic orientation toward the worldviews of lesser men.

Universities have always been somewhat elitist.  Many putatively inferior men have been less conversant in ideas, especially on the dilettantish level in which university chatter typically engages them.  Ours is not a society of consensus, wherein the resistance of a lesser man would commonly provoke pause to reflect upon possible weaknesses in an academic’s beliefs.  Rather, men and women who disputed various aspects of second-wave feminism were ignored if not abused.  There was, at the university, scant commitment to keep competing ideas in mind, or to treat lesser men and women as deserving of respect.  It was easier to save them, so to speak, in ways in which they did not necessarily want to be saved — and, when applicable, to ridicule those who (as Hillary Clinton notoriously put it) might wish to stay home and bake cookies.  And so we now have millions of women who, uninformed by university men before them, have learned the hard way that the university-workplace route is a poor substitute for home and life, and that those who do well in the workplace are not necessarily those who would thrive in, or contribute to, a healthy community.

Slaughter has many good things to say.  But at present she perpetuates a pro-employment perspective that seems unrealistic.  I know it has become gospel that everyone needs a job, and that universities should contribute to that.  But that’s just not the direction the world is going.  Within the foreseeable future, there is no prospect that employment, in the U.S. and elsewhere, will keep up with the number of people (including many with college degrees) who have no jobs at all, or whose jobs bear little relevance to their college studies.   It may always be sensible to consider vocational training or retraining to qualify for specific, rapidly evolving job opportunitites.  But the traditional idea of college — a full-time, four-year experience in which one obtains a lifetime’s introduction to a variety of ideas and priorities remote from jobhunting, sometimes actually jeopardizing one’s suitability for employment in certain fields — this idea does not appear likely to thrive, not in times that would pare back nonessentials.

What is the alternative?  Consider, first, that many women, all along, have recognized the craziness of the macho bill-more-hours workplace culture that Slaughter criticizes.  For all the stories of home qua prison, and all the realities of workplace discrimination, many women of the mid-20th century were sensibly inclined to prefer home life over formal employment.  One might extend the point to observe that men in power have a long record of abusing lesser men, not only in university and workplace but also in the selection and administration of wars, laws, and other matters impacting life expectancy.  Women then and now might have been considering that work and war have not been as glorious as the leading men made out — that, if the project was too demanding for women, then on average it might be improperly designed for men too.  Timely attention to men’s concerns, protecting the many against the most powerful and/or sociopathic few, might thus have provided early warning of major social and conceptual distortions, without requiring millions of women to detour their own lives and hopes through misconceived socioeconomic experiments.

Contrary to Slaughter’s job focus, there is the problem that, in the real world, the employer’s constant demands upon the environment do not have a plan for how that environment will cope.  We are to just keep on growing the population, creating more jobs, expanding the economy, and making the rich richer.  This seems mindless.  Given a serious risk that present policies may be jeopardizing hundreds of millions of lives and making the planet permanently less habitable, it seems obvious that anti-employment perspectives — the kinds of job perspectives common among less privileged men — have been grossly neglected.

This pattern can be reversed.  One can imagine an ethos in which everyone has the right and the obligation to pitch in and work for a few hours a day, perhaps in the community rather than at some remote workplace; one can visualize a culture wherein people are encouraged to develop the desire to help each other.  One can conceive a form of social work education in which male gambling and other disapproved behaviors are studied with an eye toward what such behaviors signify — with an eye toward, that is, the availability of meaningful ways to contribute to a socioeconomic order that people really believe in.  Those men might not be gambling if they felt needed elsewhere.

It does seem, in short, that many women could consider a perspective that would be more radical and yet more realistic than that which Slaughter still residually endorses.  It is not mistaken to want to see women in the workforce, including the highest and most demanding kinds of positions.  What is mistaken is to think that, for either women or men generally, the workforce should be the primary point of life.  Whatever the gratifications enjoyed by those few who climb to elite ranks, the reality for most people is that supervisory behaviors, power structures, bureaucratic mindsets, and many other accoutrements of the workplace often contribute to a sorry existence.

A vision of female employment offered by male studies might reject the notion of workplace as panacea.  The discussion of what women want should have been informed, that is, by a sense of how the dominance model of corporate or university organization looks from below.  It would seem consistent with feminist values to urge replacement of that model with a more dialogic approach, in which men’s studies would have a voice.

In other words, rejection of the kind of structure that serves allegedly superior men could help to make the university in general, and social work education in particular, more responsive and relevant.  Instead of being a place that charges you money to become someone who pretends to have all the answers, perhaps the university should be a place that encourages people to become aware of what is presently uncertain, and inquisitive about that.  Instead of striving primarily to bestow credentials that make graduates more marketable in a dog-eat-dog environment where few climb to the top of the heap, where work is glorified over life itself, perhaps the university should be more oriented toward the conceptualization of education — like baking cookies — as a valid activity in itself, for any benefits that it may bring.

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