Among the most harmful things we do to men and boys is leave them to their own devices.
This is what a woman—she claimed to be a fourth grade teacher—asked me recently. We were in a busy café waiting for our barista to present drinks. Small-talk (she started it) led to shop-talk: I gathered she was a teacher and she learned I write a column about men and higher education. I said I told stories about the challenges they face, and that I tried to build online community for men in the process.
I didn’t show any emotions when she told me people were “making a big deal” out of men and education. Most men, she claimed, were doing just fine in college and the job market.
I kept a poker face and followed up: did she think boys were also doing fine?
No, she said, boys were having trouble in school. Their problem was that they had become too needy. They required greater discipline, and they had parents, especially moms, who paid too much attention to their emotions.
I asked her how she believed the boys having trouble in school could become men “doing just fine” in college?
Oh, the troubled boys didn’t go to college, she said. That’s why the numbers were down. Troubled boys grew up to do “regular work” as men and were just “trucking along”. But she guessed even these “trucking” men didn’t have it bad. The evidence? Just take a look at how many spend cash on baseball games or to sit around sports bars.
Dumbfounded, I was still able to maintain my poker face. Did she think, I wondered, if girls or women should be expected to learn things on their own?
Girls were social, she said. There wasn’t anything anybody could do about that. They would always cluster together, form cliques and learn from each other. So they were really good for “group work” and easier to teach. But boys needed to depend on themselves because they were loners.
Did she expect, I continued, boys to teach themselves? Didn’t they require attention, perhaps even a particular kind of attention, from teachers and elders?
God no! At least not as much as they get. The reason our society had so many problems, she claimed, was because people pay too much attention to boys and don’t teach them to depend on themselves.
I wished my sister-in-law—an education guru and among the most gifted teachers I’ve ever known—had been there to offer me some way of testing whether this woman was really a 4th grade teacher or just someone trying to troll me. A question sounding like What have you done to implement common core principle #666? might have worked. I didn’t have that level of vocabulary, so I had to take her word for it. After receiving my Americano, I thanked her for the conversation and walked away utterly befuddled.
How can a teacher possibly think this stuff?
A teacher’s job is to teach. And the way you teach a man or a boy is by teaching him. You identify what lesson he seeks and contrive a way to open his eyes to it. That usually requires understanding how that particular boy or man learns best.
Sure, you can learn things without anyone else present. I learned the hard way that a fishhook is sharp. But I couldn’t pull it out by myself, not when I was seven. I just didn’t know how.
In my experience, among the most harmful things we do to young men is leave them to their own devices. This in the name of independence, probably our most problematic fetish.
What can people learn on their own? What do you do when you pick up a book? If you were learning on your own, the book wouldn’t have words. It wouldn’t have pages. In fact, it wouldn’t exist, unless you milled the paper, stewed the ink and composed the words yourself, three things that are impossible for any one person to do. It’s also a bit odd. Why invent a written language if you’ll only ever read it to yourself?
One of the things boys and men learn by default when they’re asked to depend on themselves is that they’re alone. If you must depend on yourself but find some task impossible, you naturally conclude, at least subconsciously, that there’s no one to depend on. It can be crushing.
In a previous article, I criticized our education culture for idealizing independence without teaching people to learn independently. It might seem I’m contradicting myself now. Independent learning, of course, is not to head out into the forest naked and open-mouthed. It’s to learn to manage resources and tools, the results of millennia of work.
An independent learner learns first and foremost to see interdependence. This person knows how to gather means to build on top of what communities built before. To learn this, one needs to know the community, the ancestors’ goals, remaining mindful of all those who presented us with this moment, including those working beside us right now, those desiring the work we are doing.
Boys and men need to know they have support in their education. They need to learn it’s perfectly acceptable to ask the question they have. It’s neither a sign of weakness nor evidence of stupidity or neediness. Yes, there are dumb and immature questions like, “Should we type this?” in typing class. But far more foolish is the idea that men learn best when we leave them in a corner with a box of tools and the belief that they are proving their masculinity by never asking for help.
This might not be a big deal to a fourth grade teacher drinking her caramel latte. But it’s a big deal to the man who ends up in the corner—perhaps even in a sports bar—and lonely.
Photo by Kevin Dooley
True Community runs each Wednesday. Gint Aras explores his experiences as an instructor in a community college that serves a lower-middle to lower class district in Chicagoland.
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