Benign Neglect or Calculated Malignity?ANTHONY ESOLEN
Why, I wonder, do boys these days get no love?
Recently, a boy competing for his high school in the Iowa state wrestling tournament chose to forfeit his initial match rather than wrestle against a girl. He spoke about his decision with an admirable reserve and good sense, saying that wrestling could be a violent sport, and that in this case he had to follow his conscience and his faith. He believed, in other words, exactly what in almost any other circumstances he would be taught as an absolute rule, and that is that a man is not to raise his hand in anger against a woman, and that he is not to touch a woman who is not his wife in the way that wrestling makes necessary – grabbing under the legs, pressing chest to chest, and worse.
And there are other considerations, harder to talk about, but ones that should have occurred to sensible people – should have, that is, if there were the slightest thought for the feelings of the boy in question. The boy would have been peculiarly vulnerable. The wrestling suit is skin tight. What if he should be aroused? What if he should hesitate to use certain holds, out of embarrassment – an embarrassment, I might add, which is natural and to be respected? Nor is the girl in exactly the same situation. She can only win, and he can only lose. If she loses and he wins, well, that is only what is "supposed" to happen, given that even before they grow tall and broad shouldered, boys are still usually stronger than girls. But if she wins, her name will be on all the sports pages across the state, as well as his.
We can say all day long that he should not feel humiliated, conveniently forgetting that it is not a man we're talking about, but a boy, and one struggling, like all boys in the straits of puberty, to grow into his manhood, to become, wiser people would say, the sort of man who would take for granted that his duty is to protect women, not to pin them to the ground. That struggle is the more acute as the boy in question is small and light, wrestling at 112 pounds. What sport can a 112-pound boy play that would allow him to be an equal member of a team of his mostly bigger and heavier and stronger brothers? The one sport that affords him the best chance of it is wrestling. Why, then, should the smallish kid be placed in this predicament? Why do his feelings and his needs count for nothing?
But then, when was the last time anybody in charge of anything considered that boys actually have feelings and needs? I am thinking now of my own profession, teaching. Who make up most of the dropouts from our high schools? Boys. From our colleges? Boys. Is that because they are not bright? Not at all; often the dropouts are quite bright indeed. We don't have many dropouts from my college, but still, I can speak of several bright young men who fell into the bad habits of college life, and whose college careers were ruined by them. So do we take any special measures to see to their needs? Hell no.
Now then, there's a great reward in teaching boys and young men. They are often quirky; they have a relatively low tolerance for academic pinky-extending and other matters of pointless etiquette; they will sometimes challenge their professors in a gruff way; and, more likely than that, they will simply ignore professors who do not win their respect, cutting the classes and settling for poor grades rather than playing along with the game. I'm perfectly aware that such behavior is often mixed up with a good deal of stubbornness, sloth, and self-justification. Yet I am also perfectly aware that it is a teacher's job to win those students over. I recall, for example, one of the brightest students I have ever met, a young man who transferred to our college and whom I would find absorbed in a novel by Dostoyevsky or Kafka in the few minutes before our class started. I and my colleagues in the team-taught course noticed this, and paid him the attention he required. And at least some of what he required was vigorous conversation with other men.
I am not saying that women cannot teach young men. They can. Or rather, many of them can; and one can usually tell pretty readily who those many are. They are those who enjoy the company of boys and young men, who forgive their foibles and who admire their strengths, and who do not try to play the drill sergeant over them, as demanding as they may be when it comes to work. I have several of my women colleagues in mind as I write this, and I can happily say that young men are drawn to them, feel grateful for their letting them be men, and treat them with some of the same mingled admiration, obedience, and, strange to say, protectiveness, with which they would treat a beloved older sister. It is a most heartening thing to see.
That said, there are many women, and some men, who are not particularly good at this task. And it is a peculiar task. The maturing of a boy is not the same as the maturing of a girl. The boy must, to establish his separate masculine identity, free himself in many ways from his emotional dependence upon his mother, the person in the world whom he loves the best. He must change from the little boy whom his mother protects to the man who will protect his mother, and who will provide for and protect the mother of his children. So it is that boys, if they are allowed to develop in a healthy and natural way, will spend years of separation from girls, especially during the time of sexual latency but also, in part, for some years afterwards, winning their masculine stripes from their fellows – and, what is both obvious in every culture and yet now almost universally ignored, developing intellectually from the challenges they impose upon one another. This development is to the benefit of everyone, not simply the young men, but also the women they will marry and the children they will raise and the neighbors among whom they will live.
So then, one would suppose that the capacity to inspire young men, or at least to get some decent work from them, would form part of a candidate's qualifications for teaching at high schools and colleges. One would suppose in vain. If, as happens, a male teacher is not good at attracting female students to his courses, that is his problem; but if, as happens somewhat more frequently, a female teacher is not good at attracting male students to her courses, that is their problem. I have been teaching at the university level for more than a quarter century now, and I can say with confidence that the sorts of men who put women off, by being gruff and aggressive and imperious, do not usually get hired in the first place, not at schools that take teaching seriously; but that the sorts of women who put men off by their chip-on-shoulder feminism, or who simply do not inspire men to what I call deeds of followership, are hired all the time, and again, if they prove signally unable to get good work from young men, that failure is never held against them. The boys are to blame.
I propose a thought experiment. Let us suppose that a father could do something simple to ensure that his son would grow up to be intelligent, successful, well-adjusted, and prosperous. Would not a responsible father do this thing, without a second thought? Well, there is no such thing. But let us change the terms of the problem. Suppose there is something he could do, something simple enough, to ensure – barring the bizarre and unforeseen tragedy of a rape – that his son would grow up to be confident in his masculinity, comfortable in his skin, easygoing around other men, attracted to women and attractive to them in turn. Would he not do this simple thing? Of course he would; not because he is a bigot, but because such a development for his son would be a great and beautiful thing. He would want for him that great good, nor would he apologize a moment for wanting it. Indeed he would be derelict in his duty if he did not want it, or if he acted so as to make it more difficult for his son to achieve.
As it turns out, there are things the father can do to help his son attain that strong manhood. But that is not my point. What about the boys whose fathers are absent, or negligent, or cruel? Or the boys who have decent fathers, but whose relationships with those fathers are, because of the vagaries of personality and interests, a little difficult or distant? What about the boys who are not coordinated well for sports, not good looking, not early bloomers? These boys too need our assistance in negotiating the straits of puberty and becoming strong men, capable of marrying and of raising children. So what help do we give them? That is easy to answer. No help at all. Instead, for them and for those who may be more confused still, we hold out the possibility that they may be destined for homosexual relationships, whose behaviors corrupt the boy's need to be affirmed by other males, pervert the natural uses of sex, and subject the practitioners to a host of diseases of both body and soul. About those boys, the Church has nothing to say.
Why not? Again, what have they done to warrant this treatment? Are they responsible for the idiocies of the sexual revolution now nearly 50 years old? Of course not; and yet we persist in the obviously absurd conviction that somehow that sexual revolution has been to their benefit, when a glance at our prisons should suffice to show that it is not so.
St. John Bosco, pray for us.
Anthony Esolen, "Benign Neglect or Calculated Malignity?" Inside Catholic (March 17, 2011).
Reprinted with permission of InsideCatholic.com. The mission of InsideCatholic.com is to be a voice for authentic Catholicism in the public square.
Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College, where his classes are featured in the college's Western Civilization Core Curriculum. He is the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Anthony Esolen has published many scholarly articles and essays, including several on Renaissance literature. A graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina, Esolen is proficient in Latin, Italian, Anglo-Saxon, French, German and Greek. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife Debra and their two children. Anthony Esolen is a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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