Boys Need Men In Schools


Boy's Education
Author Rex Stoessiger

Special Adviser on Boy’s Education, Rex Stoessiger, looks at how boys construct their ideas on masculinity and calls for men to become involved in schools.
Our society places great emphasis on gender. The very structure of the language we use differentiates gender - we can’t talk about a person (or even a dog!) until we have established their gender.

Young boys very quickly learn their gender and with it comes the realisation that they will grow up to be men. How boys construct their ideas about masculinity is complicated by one key feature of current society – a lack of fathering.

Robert Bly has emphasised the importance of father-son relationships in male development and Steve Biddulph has both amplified Bly’s work and added to our understanding of the issues in male development.

Basically, they suggest that the industrial revolution separated fathers from sons. In pre-industrial societies, men and boys largely worked together. Boys had access to the full range of male behaviour. Boys easily constructed their masculinity from the models they observed around them.

With the industrial revolution things changed. Men went to factories and boys went to school. Fathers and sons were together for only small amounts of time, usually after a hard working day when both were tired. Boys saw only limited aspects of masculinity.

Today the separation is possibly even more rigid. Men are largely confined to factories and offices while boys are at school for longer and longer periods.

Meanwhile, the home is largely the woman’s preserve.

With fathers physically and emotionally separated from their sons, it’s harder to learn what it means to be male. But in our society all boys have to grow up to be men. There isn’t a choice. Boys will learn their masculinity one way or another. Unfortunately the other ways do not give as comprehensive a picture of masculinity as the real, live examples provide. They give a limited and distorted picture of masculinity which perpetuate the hold that dominant social constructions of masculinity have on men overall.

In present day society, there are three obvious ways for boys to learn masculinity. And all three are dangerous.

First, boys commonly learn about masculinity from the media. Boys typically see much, much more television than they see of their fathers and learn much about male behaviour from the box source. So what sort of men are displayed on television? There are three main types: ultra-competitive sportsmen; violent men; and dopes. The sports stars and Rambos are emotionally shut down, aggressive, highly negligent of their personal well-being and very competitive. The dopes, while quite common in the media, shouldn’t be models for anyone. However, teachers suggest that there are plenty of boys who do model themselves on these TV dopes.

The second source of models of masculinity comes from the peer group. Young men spend much more time with friends of similar ages than with adult men. They are almost always with the peer group in school, playing sport and hanging out with their friends. When it comes to learning masculinity the peer group are all in the deep end together with very little adult support. Who sets the tone? In peer groups, it’s the most aggressive and violent male who calls the shots and ends up providing the example of ‘successful’ masculinity. The violent, emotionally shut-down, highly competitive, anti-authority males provide the strongest examples.

The third way young men currently learn their masculinity is by reaction. Bad as the other two methods are, this is potentially worse. If boys can’t learn about masculinity from men because they are largely surrounded by women at home and at school then boys simply equate being male with ‘not-female’. Boys develop an anti-female culture in which anything labeled female is degraded and to be avoided at all cost – things such as showing emotions, caring for others, looking after your body, talking about feelings and – critical to boys’ education – being literate and good at school work.

The particular danger is that learning masculinity in this way can be accompanied by learning to be anti-female. This may well be the prime source of the negative attitudes female teachers often find from adolescent boys.

An Australian friend of mine lived in Spain for a number of years with her partner, and her son was born there. His father always spoke to him in Spanish, his mother in English to ensure he grew up with both languages. At about age seven the son refused to speak English. "That’s a girl’s language," he said, "Men speak Spanish." It was several years before he would routinely speak English to his mother. Learning by reaction is not wise.

All three ways of learning masculinity have in common the highly stereotyped, distorted, limited and macho picture of masculinity which is conveyed to young men.

If boys spent more time around real men. Just ordinary common-garden men, the stereotype would be much harder to maintain. Ordinary men show a much wider range of emotional behaviour, caring activity and concern for themselves and for others than the stereotypes convey. They don’t pick themselves up after being thrown to the ground without blinking an eye. They don’t use violence to solve all their problems. They do cooperate in work places and homes and they usually have good relationships with women. This information can be easily conveyed to growing boys – they just need to spend time with men.

While the term ‘father-hunger’ draws attention to the relationship of fathers and sons, the key relationship is between boys and men. In terms of learning masculinity, any common-garden man will help.

Boys learn masculinity from the men they spend time with and learn the most from those they have good relationships with. Uncles, grandfathers, step-fathers, older brothers, sporting coaches, scout masters, school teachers, and neighbours are all teachers of masculinity who can help boys develop a comprehensive, three-dimensional, picture of maleness. For schools, the implications are clear. More men are needed.

Primary schools need to find ways to bring men and boys together. Because about 80% of primary teachers are women, many boys go through their whole primary school experience without a male teacher. Many of the male teachers are in senior positions and don’t actually teach boys. Schools need the few male teachers available to regularly teach boys.

In addition, schools need to recruit men from home and the community to come into school to work with boys. When men do came to school they shouldn’t be given sporting or construction activities. They are needed reading to boys, listening to them read and helping them write.

Fathers also need to be informed that taking an interest in their son’s education will be critical in helping him develop positive attitudes to school. Reading to children both at home and school is not women’s work. Often fathers just need to be told. But given current constructions of masculinity, it simply isn’t obvious to most men that what they do is important for boys.

Finding ways to bring more men into school is not difficult.

The first step is simply to sit down together at a staff or a parent-teacher meeting and brainstorm all the possible ways to involve more men in the school. Many great suggestions will emerge and many will be simple to implement.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on what we can do to get more men involved in our schools.

If you would like to ask Rex about this article or any other matter relating to boys' education, you can do so by visiting his Special Adviser's area by clicking on Special Advisers in the menu bar below.

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