Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.
(CNN) -- "That's the second unmanly thing you've done today," is the punch line of the most frequently played Miller Lite ad during NFL games. It ends with the ultimatum, "Man up."
In a new McDonald's commercial, two newlyweds delay their honeymoon after the man hears that McDonald's is featuring the McRib sandwich again. The woman says in disbelief, "I married a 14-year-old."
If popular culture is any indicator, manliness is on our minds. Six new TV shows this fall focus on man's role in society and the family, according to the Wall Street Journal. Three are appropriately titled, "Last Man Standing," "How To Be A Gentleman," and "Man Up!" Something is going on here.
In all these shows, men have become the butt of the jokes. From weakness to irresponsibility to immaturity, the modern idea of manhood is in doubt. A shift in cultural norms, a changing workforce and the rise of women have left many men in an identity crisis. It makes for good comedy, but bad families.
Although men remain at the top of the heap in terms of compensation and job status, particularly in fields like science, business, and politics, things are changing. This year there will be more women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies than ever before. And for the first time, American women now gain more advanced college degrees, as well as bachelor's degrees, than American men.
My first CNN column on this subject identified what I think are the common problems with some men today: deficiencies in work, marriage and faith. The overwhelming response I received, from men and women alike, worries me.
Many women told me the problems are much worse than I described. They explained to me how they have to lower their standards to find a man. Young women, in particular, complained that men are dragging them down and holding them back. As one woman told me, if 60 is the new 40 for men, then 25 is the new 13.
Most feminists are not celebrating the decline of men and shouting it from the rooftops. Certainly, the far-left feminist movement has sought to diminish the role of men, but a majority of women want able, competent men of their equal. Strong men make stronger women (and vice versa) and stronger families, and women want that. Many men today aren't sure what they want.
In developed Western countries, man has unprecedented freedom to chose, to a degree heretofore unknown, a life of his own wanting and design. A mere hundred years ago, man couldn't afford to dawdle in limbo between adolescence and manhood; manhood was thrust upon him for survival. Today, more opportunity lies at his feet than ever. Yet with this increased opportunity comes increased confusion, and the response on the part of some men has not been encouraging.
Take the Occupy Wall Street movement, for instance. While diverse and scattered, some of the mottos and slogans on display are in stark contrast to the traditional and time-tested ideas of manliness. Instead of industriousness, responsibility and entrepreneurship, these men demand free college education, required living wages and greater distribution of someone else's wealth. Rather than look inward and rely on their own self-sufficiency, they look for a handout. A man's livelihood once depended on his hands, back and brain. Today, the government can do all that for him, if he lets it.
The struggle between dependency and freedom has provoked many to ask the question: How does one be a man today?
Boys become men through mimesis -- the Greek word for imitation. Boys look to role models, from parents to coaches to teachers to fictional characters, for actions they should imitate. The forces of imitation can be either constructive or destructive, making it essential that boys imitate the right kind of men. My brother and I were raised by a single mother, but she went through any pains necessary to put good men in our lives -- good priests, teachers and coaches.
As a child, I had many heroes. I was drawn to Gary Cooper as Marshal Will Kane in "High Noon." He wasn't the toughest and coolest guy, but his compassion and strength were inspiring. Through the instruction of my family and teachers I was exposed to other heroes and heroines, like Lou Gehrig, Abraham Lincoln, King David, Esther, Mother Courage, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and so on. Today, heroes like these are in shorter supply.
Ask a boy today who his hero or heroine is. The answer, or lack thereof, will speak volumes. We must teach our boys what is to be loved and imitated. As the writer Tom Wolfe said, we must engage in a great relearning. It is our generation's task to instruct and train our boys to be men. As Proverbs says, train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.