Education: Male Call

Why boys are dropping out
ROBERT LANDRY ILLUSTRATION

Deric McBride, 22, and James Lambert, 20, don’t know each other and probably never will. One lives in Chalmette; one lives in Metairie. One attended Chalmette High, a public school; one attended Jesuit High School, a private Catholic high school. They grew from different roots and different circumstances, yet they are similar in more ways than age: They are both high school dropouts.

Both plan to get a college education, but their all-too-common years of struggle and knocking about puzzle educators and researchers who see a troubling trend among male students from elementary school through college. As a subset of the student population, males are falling behind females in almost every academic category, including getting college degrees, says Richard Whitmire, a former editorial writer for USA Today and author of Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That’s Leaving Them Behind.

 In an age that requires more than one diploma to gain access to most employment, the proportion of males to females attending college has been dropping for several years. Whitmire says that on many college campuses, 60 percent of the students awarded degrees are female because males are less likely to enroll and more likely to drop out. He also says that after the global recession of 2008, “women became the majority of the workforce.”

In every state and other western countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia, boys’ declining interest in getting college educations worries parents, teachers and researchers who wonder what’s going to happen to them in the marketplace.

 “You pay your money and all they do is drink and party,” says Dawn Lambert, James Lambert’s mother.

Dawn Lambert, a single mother, sent her son to private schools on a restaurant manager’s salary for most of his school years, only to see him lose interest and get kicked out of high school in his junior year for poor performance. He earned a GED and went to Loyola University for a couple of semesters, but ran into academic trouble there, too. He joined the U.S. Army, but health problems brought him back home within a few months and now he plans to give Loyola University another try.

“The epiphany came when I got back from basic [training],” James Lambert says. “This self-destructive nature has to end.”

What is interesting about the male college student mystery is how various participants in the situation see it. The phenomenon is becoming more widely discussed, but there’s disagreement about how serious a problem it is or what the root causes are. Whitmire blames the education system, while others say it’s a social and cultural problem driven by media role modeling – think Charlie Sheen in “Two and a Half Men,” a popular television series focusing on the antics of a man frozen in perpetual adolescence.

It is hard to argue with the latter theory when so many parents report that their 18-year-old sons flunked out of their freshmen years, not because they couldn’t keep up but because they didn’t even attend class. Faced with the newly found freedom of being away from home, their futures got lost in a smoky haze of prolonged entertainment.

Witnessing the problem from a community college perspective, I see a revolving door of young men similar to Lambert. They are capable of college work, but flunk out of Louisiana State University or Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond and must attend a two-year school to improve their grade point average. There is no way they’ll graduate in four years, and no doubt some of them will never recover from the spree. They lose scholarships, face their parents’ wrath and admit their bad behavior without any embarrassment.

 In many male minds, school is just not as cool as breaking the rules – think Bruce Willis in the Die Hard movie franchise. He massacres the criminals in a muscle shirt and bare feet, but somehow he’s always in trouble with the rank.

School isn’t masculine. Whitmire explores the theory that schools lose boys early for a variety of reasons, one of which is that most of the teaching core is female. Thankfully, he doesn’t blame women for this problem, but he does note that some say female teachers overly emphasize female protagonists in literature classes. There may be something to this charge. After all, most young boys like bugs better than they like girls.

Some young men say they simply don’t like school, but they don’t seem to know why. They typically say that it’s “boring.”

Deric McBride says he was one of the school-haters, and he didn’t believe that dropping out would ruin his life. “A lot of my friends dropped out,” he says. “We thought we knew everything. We thought we could go out and work, make money and have fun.”

Real life showed him otherwise. McBride says that, time after time, he saw “the guy with the high school diploma get the job.” Then his final epiphany occurred when he was putting down shingles on a 140-degree roof. “I realized it’s not what I want to do. I’m going back to school so that when I get older, I can retire, instead of working.”

McBride also earned a GED and is now attending Nunez Community College. Many of his former friends haven’t found their way back, however. He says most of them are “drug addicts – heroin and pain pills.”

James Lambert speculates that academic frustration led him and many of his friends to drink. “Alcohol was a huge problem,” he says. “I wasn’t finding a proper way to vent.”

 McBride and Lambert’s experiences point to a rebellion against school that even they don’t understand. As Whitmire concludes, deeper issues may be at work that could be addressed at the school level.

In the meantime, parents often vacillate between making excuses for their boys, being angry with them, or feeling guilty.

Sometimes, Dawn Lambert says, “You’re just sad because you don’t know what to do help.”

What the boys say about school:

James Lambert: “I was so frustrated with school. It was almost as if I was rebelling.”

Deric McBride: “I hated school. I like it now. I like looking at the girls. They’re not on the construction sites, I know that.”