I ran across a statement in The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul of Corporate America, a fascinating and game-changing book by David Whyte. In his book, published in 2002, Whyte writes:
At present, an astounding 15 percent of the young American male population is in the correction system…
I was curious about that number, which clearly shocked me. Whyte, one of my favorite poets, explores the human psyche’s or soul’s relationship to the corporate structure within which it works. But more importantly, he explores how we can easily give ourselves over to a system that fails to integrate our most human qualities, our need for acceptance, intimacy, connection, and expression of our soul. In this exploration, he retells stories that describe how young men lose their identity and become alienated.
In America, many of our young men grow up in families without an influential father figure at their side to help them shape their identity in healthy ways.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 19.7 million children, more than 1 in 4, live without a father in the home. Consequently, there is a father factor in nearly all social ills facing America today. (click here)
One of the consequences of this fact is that 19% of young men between the ages of 18-30 are in our prison system (see the graph below). These statistics come from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
This statistic is heart-wrenching, and further illustrates the challenges our society faces. While living without a father figure is only one variable that impacts how a young man’s life unfolds, it is clearly an important piece of data to understand.
Schools can play an important role in a child’s life if they find themselves without a father figure in their life. As educators, we can try to understand the influences that a father figure has on a young boy’s identity development. What are the puzzle pieces that when assembled give us a clear picture of how a father and a son interact that determines the path a boy takes in his life? If we understand the puzzle, then we can more intentionally design school to fill the gaps left behind by absent fathers.
We know that an extended family network, a church, and peer relationships can also influence a young boy’s development. In what ways could schools partner with other organizations in a young man’s life to collaborate on developing programs that fill needs that exist if a father is unavailable?
There are vast resources available and research being done on this issue. Barack Obama, the former President, started a foundation, My Brothers’ Keepers, to engage in this work. Yet, with all we know and do to understand the complex social problem this represents, we don’t seem to be making significant progress in filling the void. Why?
I think the statistics, which don’t lie, should shake us up to invest more intellectual and economic energy into solving this issue. Lives lost to prison, which are predominantly male (93% of the inmate population is male), are lives lost to our society. These human lives, if we invest in them, can be partners in the work we need to do to heal our world. Our nation’s schools have to lead the way.