Boys to Men: Teaching and Learning About Masculinity in an Age of Change

by | Aug 11, 2022 | Masculinity

Boys to Men: Teaching and Learning About Masculinity in an Age of Change

by | Aug 11, 2022 | Masculinity

What do boys in America think about being boys today?

What do they imagine is expected of them? Whom do they look up to, and how are they navigating the transition from being boys to becoming men?

In a 2018 Times opinion essay “The Boys Are Not All Right,” the comedian and author Michael Ian Black writes:

The past 50 years have redefined what it means to be female in America. Girls today are told that they can do anything, be anyone. They’ve absorbed the message: They’re outperforming boys in school at every level. But it isn’t just about performance. To be a girl today is to be the beneficiary of decades of conversation about the complexities of womanhood, its many forms and expressions.

Boys, though, have been left behind. No commensurate movement has emerged to help them navigate toward a full expression of their gender. It’s no longer enough to “be a man” — we no longer even know what that means.

In this unit, we explore some of the questions Mr. Black, and others, raise, and suggest ways to deconstruct definitions of masculinity as they manifest in our society and our lives. We end with suggestions for several projects students might take on to expand and reimagine what “being a man” might mean in their own lives and in our society at large.

Note to teachers: This is a sensitive topic, and some of the readings, discussion questions or activities may not be suitable for your students. We hope you will tailor it to fit your needs, but we also hope you’ll tell us how and why you did that, in the comments.

If you are doing a larger study of gender issues, please see the links at the bottom of this post for related lesson plans, including one on the #MeToo movement, and one, contributed by a teacher, on pronoun use in schools.


Credit…Owen Smith
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In 2015, Michael Kimmel, a leading scholar on masculinity and the director of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, helped start the nation’s first master’s degree program in Masculinities Studies. The program, at Stony Brook University, explores what it means to be male in today’s world.

In “A Master’s Degree in … Masculinity?” Jessica Bennett explains how Mr. Kimmel begins his classes:

Michael Kimmel stood in front of a classroom in bluejeans and a blazer with a pen to a whiteboard. “What does it mean,” the 64-year-old sociology professor asked the group, most of them undergraduates, “to be a good man?”

The students looked puzzled.

“Let’s say it was said at your funeral, ‘He was a good man,’” Dr. Kimmel explained. “What does that mean to you?”

“Caring,” a male student in the front said.

“Putting other’s needs before yours,” another young man said.

“Honest,” a third said.

Dr. Kimmel listed each term under the heading Good Man, then turned back to the group. “Now,” he said, “tell me what it means to be a real man.”

This time, the students reacted more quickly.

“Take charge; be authoritative,” said James, a sophomore.

“Take risks,” said Amanda, a sociology graduate student.

“It means suppressing any kind of weakness,” another offered.

“I think for me being a real man meant talk like a man,” said a young man who’d grown up in Turkey. “Walk like a man. Never cry.”

Dr. Kimmel had been taking notes. “Now you’re in the wheelhouse,” he said, excitedly. He pointed to the Good Man list on the left side of the board, then to the Real Man list he’d added to the right. “Look at the disparity. I think American men are confused about what it means to be a man.”

Try a similar warm-up activity with your students to get them thinking about the messages they receive from society about what it means to be a man.

Ask students: What does it mean to be a “good man”?
• What qualities do the men you respect and admire have?
• What values and morals do they live by?
• What kinds of things do they say and do?

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Men have always had a role apart, and they still judge one another according to the demands of that role as a guardian in a gang struggling for survival against encroaching doom. Everything that is specifically about being a man—not merely a person—has to do with that role.

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