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Teachers and parents must challenge outdated notions of manhood when educating boys

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George Harris is the headmaster of Hilton College and writes in his personal capacity.

All-boys’ schools cannot right toxic definitions of manhood on their own – parents and the wider school community have a duty of care to partner in the endeavour and to consider their own definitions of manhood. This is an edited version of a letter to parents from the headmaster of Hilton College in KwaZulu-Natal. It has been widely shared on social media.

In recent months there has been much in the media about the challenges facing boys’ schools.

Since we have all been through school, we all have an opinion as to what we believe constitutes a good schooling experience. However, progress has changed aspects of education in the same way that progress has changed so many sectors in the time since we, the adults, were at school. Yet, our opinion of what constitutes a good schooling experience lingers in our minds disproportionately as we follow, often vicariously, our children’s pathway through school.   

Boys’ schools attract much negativity when things go awry because the public sentiment seems to be that these schools are steeped in primitive practices which perpetuate the übermasculine stereotype previous generations of schoolboys grew up with. Sadly, in some cases this sentiment is correct. 

The fallacy that “boys will be boys” – and so will make more poor choices when they band together, alongside a shallow portrayal of manhood that celebrates brawn over brain – paints a poor picture of the men we aim to produce in an all-boys environment. This is desperately unfortunate.

Unhelpful stereotypes of men can take root anywhere. In our homes, our schools – monastic and co-ed – in our places of work and worship.

It is imperative that we challenge them regularly and acutely. But how?

When boys are encouraged to perpetuate a narrow version of manhood – sometimes by each other, sometimes by fathers, often by societal norms – the task of educators in boys’ schools is more difficult.

When schools place undue emphasis on narrow metrics to gauge success, a poor definition of manhood takes root, and this can perpetuate a problematic, weak and victimising culture at a school. Bullying, belittling and othering become the norm and this vicious cycle is self-perpetuating. 

Most boys’ schools are hard at work trying to change this negative pattern, but we will only win when we – parents and teachers – accept that our experience of schooling may itself have been narrow and thus ill-fitting for this changed world. 

Today’s great boys’ schools capitalise on enduring value-sets but work with great focus at establishing a narrative which speaks unwaveringly and unapologetically to a manhood that is alive to a world rich in diversity and inclusion. This is a very different world to that which was, even a mere 25 years ago. 

This may mean altering the picture we may have sketched of our children’s schooling and allowing space for a new vision of an ideal schooling experience, which may be fundamentally different from that which we experienced. Normally, change only occurs when we are prepared to forgo an old version for that of another. 

I believe there remains a definitive role for boys’ schools in today’s world. However, they cannot be a carbon copy of boys’ schools of old. 

Today’s schools for boys need to embrace the refreshing reality of greater difference among boys; they need to champion those boys who choose the arts over sport; they need to foster freedom of thought and freedom of association; they need to develop a plethora of voices and avoid a single narrative; they need to celebrate gentleness and encourage empathy; they need to honour peacemakers and recognise quiet strength; they need to major on character development and minor on achievements. 

A shift will take time, there are many headwinds, but we may not give in.  

Society needs men who are equipped to change and challenge the stereotypical negative narrative espoused in the adage “boys will be boys”.  DM

 

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  • One hundred percent. OK, with one small change: “…need to champion those boys who choose the arts over sport” I would change to _arts, sciences, and other academic pursuits._ A lot of the ‘manne’ culture belittles intellectual achievement, apparently believing Rugby is the only achievement worth pursuing.

  • Dead Poets Society is such an important movie in this context. My monastic school had a Mister John Keating, and we remain in contact 35 years later. However, such schools may be an anachronism in our necessarily diverse world today. (Except that there is research that shows girl-children do better academically in girls-only education.) There is complexity in the issue, it is not merely straight-forward and linear. The letter above is a valuable insight because this new world requires a new approach to masculinity that will serve the future better than the Old Boys’ Network. Neil Postman/ Weingartner’s book, “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” – together with DPS – should really still be required reading for school teacher’s, even if slightly dated by now.

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