Raising Expectations for Young Men

Howard Emmert Hampden Sydney By Dr. Gregory B. Hess, president, Wabash College, and
Dr. Christopher B. Howard, president, Hampden-Sydney College

When the football teams from Hampden-Sydney College and Wabash College met to open the season on September 6, it was more than a clash of nationally ranked NCAA Division III programs. It marked the first time the two institutions had met on the gridiron despite long, proud football traditions.

While critically important to the 250 or so student-athletes who toiled throughout the summer to prepare for the coming season, the game was important for other reasons: It brought to light the important work these colleges are doing to educate men of character and substance. Hampden-Sydney’s mission to “form good men and citizens” is remarkably similar to Wabash’s call for its students to act “as gentlemen and responsible citizens.”

If the teams had met 50 years ago, hardly anyone would have noticed that two men’s colleges were playing a Saturday afternoon football game. But today, Hampden-Sydney, founded in 1775 in Farmville, Virginia, and Wabash, founded in 1832 in Crawfordsville, Indiana, are two of just four all-male colleges remaining in the United States.

We both believe that men’s education allows for rare and good things to occur in the lives of our students. It is important to understand why this is so and why it matters.

Young men in America today are in a quiet crisis. In his powerful book Guyland, sociologist Dr. Michael Kimmel says that young men exist in “a stage of development poised between adolescence and adulthood, a world in which we postpone entering into adulthood until our late 20s, moving back home after college, drifting through relationships and career paths.”

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, men are falling behind in college. Men represent just 43.2 percent of the students enrolled in colleges and universities today, and the male graduation rate has fallen to just 56.8 percent.

There are reasons for this. Our economy no longer provides coherent career paths the way it did a generation ago. Young males are slow to adjust to the long-overdue new roles that women are assuming in society. They receive negative, destructive, models of “hyper-masculinity” from our culture’s movies, video games, and music. They are asking: “What does it mean to be a good man?”

Hampden-Sydney and Wabash are institutions focused on providing answers to that question and contributing to a growing national conversation about young males in America.

Our colleges pull reluctant students away from self-indulgence and passivity and out into an environment of high expectations, engagement, and accountability.

On our two all-male campuses, men participate in community service, the arts, theater, and music in high percentages. People notice when a student misses a class or rehearsal. The brotherhood unites students on our campuses, encourages competition without malice, and instills a high level of accountability to one another and oneself.

One of the foundational principles at Wabash College echoes the importance of what psychologist and author Dr. Michael Thompson refers to as “a meaningful goal.” Thompson writes in What Works, a collection of articles and essays published by Hampden-Sydney, that boys can and do change behaviors. Notoriously poor collaborators compared to females, they will pull together when they see what he calls “a meaningful goal.” Wabash refers to this as “seriousness of purpose.”

Similarly, Hampden-Sydney challenges its young men to engage in “vocational reflection,” whereby each student is asked from his first day on campus to think about his purpose, passion, and calling in life and what it means to be “good men.”

And therein lies a key to unlocking the potential of young men today: helping to guide each of them to discover his own “meaningful goal,” his own “seriousness of purpose,” in order to avoid the pitfalls of hyper-masculine behavior far too prevalent these days.

Former Baltimore Colts defensive lineman Joe Ehrmann, now a minister and motivational speaker, makes the point in What Works that young men need to see role models on and off the athletic field. “The challenge,” he writes, “is to create a clear and compelling definition of healthy masculinity that will help guide every young man to understand the truth about what it means to ‘be a Man.’ ”

It is a complex question, one that each young man must answer for himself. It is also a call for all of us—parents, teachers, counselors, and coaches—to help him find the answer to that question. Since America’s earliest years, these two men’s colleges have been working to answer that call and to produce good men.

This is a complex, dangerous, demanding world. 

We will need those good men.