For more than a decade I have been in a position to see young men in the making. As a Marine, college professor, and now principal of a K-12 charter school, I have deliberately tried to figure out whether the nation through its most important institutions of moral instruction—its families and schools—is turning boys into responsible young men. Young women, always the natural judges of the male character, say emphatically "No." In my experience, many young women are upset, but not about an elusive Prince Charming or even the shortage of "cute guys" around. Rather, they have very specific complaints against how they have been treated in shopping malls or on college campuses by immature and uncouth males, and even more pointed complaints against their boyfriends or other male acquaintances who fail to protect them. At times, they appear desperately hopeless. They say matter-of-factly that the males around them do not know how to act like either men or gentlemen. It appears to them that, except for a few lucky members of their sex, most women today must choose between males who are whiny, incapable of making decisions, and in general of "acting like men," or those who treat women roughly and are unreliable, unmannerly, and usually stupid.
The young men, for their part, are not a little embarrassed when they hear these charges but can't wholly deny them. Indeed, when asked the simple question, "When have you ever been taught what it means to be a man?" they are typically speechless and somewhat ashamed.
The question for teachers, professors, and others in positions of moral influence is what to do about young women's growing dissatisfaction and young men's increasing confusion and embarrassment. Teachers cannot become their students' parents, but they can give direction to those who have ears to hear. Two lessons are essential. First, a clear challenge must be issued to young males urging them to become the men their grandfathers and great-grandfathers were. This challenge must be clear, uncompromising, engaging, somewhat humorous, and inspiring. It cannot seem like a tired, fusty, chicken-little lament on the part of the old and boring, but must be seen as the truly revolutionary and cutting-edge effort to recover authentic manliness. Second, a new generation of scholars must tell the tale of how men used to become men and act manfully, and how we as a nation have lost our sense of true manliness. The spirit of this inquiry cannot be that of an autopsy but rather that of the Renaissance humanists, who sought to recover and to borrow the wisdom of the past in order to ennoble their own lives.
Historians and political theorists and professors of literature must realize that the topic of gender is not the monopoly of those who would try to eradicate gender but the natural possession of the great thinkers and actors and even the common folk of the Western tradition. Aristotle had a great deal to say about gender and manhood, as did Washington and Burke and Jane Austen. These two enterprises, the one rhetorical and the other philosophical, are and must be related. One comes from and appeals to the heart. The other comes from and appeals to the mind. Young men today have both hearts and minds that are in chronic need of cultivation. Specifically, they need to realize what true manhood is, what it is not, and why it has become so difficult in the modern world to achieve the status and stature of the true man.
Manhood is not simply a matter of being male and reaching a certain age. These are acts of nature; manhood is a sustained act of character. It is no easier to become a man than it is to become virtuous. In fact, the two are the same. The root of our old-fashioned word "virtue" is the Latin word virtus, a derivative of vir, or man. To be virtuous is to be "manly." As Aristotle understood it, virtue is a "golden mean" between the extremes of excess and deficiency. Too often among today's young males, the extremes seem to predominate. One extreme suffers from an excess of manliness, or from misdirected and unrefined manly energies. The other suffers from a lack of manliness, a total want of manly spirit. Call them barbarians and wimps. So prevalent are these two errant types that the prescription for what ails our young males might be reduced to two simple injunctions: Don't be a barbarian. Don't be a wimp. What is left, ceteris paribus, will be a man.
Today's barbarians are not hard to find. Like the barbarians of old, the new ones wander about in great packs. You can recognize them by their dress, their speech, their amusements, their manners, and their treatment of women. You will know them right away by their distinctive headgear. They wear baseball caps everywhere they go and in every situation: in class, at the table, indoors, outdoors, while taking a test, while watching a movie, while on a date. They wear these caps frontward, backward, and sideways. They will wear them in church and with suits, if ever a barbarian puts on a suit. Part security blanket, part good-luck charm, these distinctive head coverings unite each barbarian with the rest of the vast barbaric horde.
Recognizing other barbarians by their ball caps, one barbarian can enter into a verbal exchange with another anywhere: in a men's room, at an airport, in a movie theater. This exchange, which never quite reaches the level of conversation, might begin with, "Hey, what up?" A traditional response: "Dude!" The enlightening colloquy can go on for hours at increasingly high volumes. "You know, you know!" "What I'm sayin'!" "No way, man!" "What the f---!" "You da man!" "Cool!" "Phat!" "Awesome!" And so on. Barbarians do not use words to express thoughts, convey information, paint pictures in the imagination, or come to a rational understanding. Such speech as they employ serves mainly to elicit in others audible reactions to a few sensual events: football, sex, hard rock, the latest barbarian movie, sex, football. In the barbarian universe, Buckleyesque vocabularies are not required.
Among the most popular barbarian activities are playing sports and lifting weights. There is, of course, nothing wrong with sports or physical training. Playing sports can encourage young males to cultivate several important manly virtues: courage, competitiveness, camaraderie, stamina, a sense of fairness. For this reason, superior cultures have invariably used sports as a proving ground for manly endeavor. As the Duke of Wellington said, "The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton." The problem is that many young males of today receive no manly education apart from sports. When the British boys who later defeated Napoleon were not competing in the sporting contests conducted in elite public schools, they were learning how to become gentlemen. They spoke the King's English, carried themselves with an air of dignity, treated women with respect, and studied assiduously.
Today's barbarians act as though they never leave the playing field or the gym. They wear the same clothes, speak the same language (just as loudly), spit and scratch themselves just as much, whether on the field or off. More properly, nothing off the field matters to them, except perhaps sex, which they also treat as a game, and alcohol. As a result, they live almost a divided life. On the field, they can be serious, competitive, eager, and disciplined. Off the field, they are lazy, careless, disorganized, and disaffected. Such a divided life is the hallmark of barbarism. In his classic account of the ancient Germanic tribes, the Roman historian Tacitus contrasted the energy and purpose of the German men on the field of battle with their listlessness in the camp.
Whenever they are not fighting, they pass much of their time in the chase, and still more in idleness, giving themselves up to sleep and to feasting, the bravest and the most warlike doing nothing, and surrendering the management of the household, of the home, and of the land, to the women, the old men, and all the weakest members of the family. They themselves lie buried in sloth, a strange combination in their nature that the same men should be so fond of idleness, so averse to peace.
The ancient barbarians did little except fight and hunt. The modern barbarians do little besides play sports and pursue women. To be sure, they have other amusements. But these activities do not as a rule require sensibility or thought. Indeed, typical barbarian pastimes, like drinking mightily and watching WWF wrestling, seem expressly contrived to stupefy the senses and nullify the intellect.
Barbarians, not surprisingly, listen to barbaric music. Allan Bloom famously identified rock-and-roll as the music of sexual intercourse. It was no accident that the progenitor of the rock-and-roll revolution was nicknamed "the Pelvis." Equally basic, but fundamentally different, are the passions enlisted by modern rock without the roll, that is, heavy metal. It is certainly not the music of intercourse, at least not of the consensual variety, since girls and women generally hate it. And with good reason: It is impossible to dance to. You can, of course, thrust your fist over and over into the air. Heavy metal lacks all rhythmic quality, sounding more like jet engines taking off while a growling male voice shouts repeated threats, epithets, and obscenities. Heavy metal lacks all subtlety, reflection, harmony, refinement—in a word, civilization. For good reason did Plato combine music with gymnastic instruction in the education of the guardian class of his Republic. A certain kind of music would soften the souls of young men. Heavy metal softens nothing. It is the music of pure rage.
Barbarians, strictly speaking, have no manners. They shout out to each other in public as though the world were a playing field or a rock concert. To complement the shouting, there is a recognizable barbarian posture, carriage, and comportment. They slouch in their seats. They belch and proudly pass loud gas in public places. They spit practically everywhere they go. A particularly annoying barbarian habit is not looking you in the eye. He will look this way and that, shrug his shoulders, move his body in different directions, but rarely just stand in one place, look you in the eye, and say something intelligible. Speaking to adults used to be one of the first lessons a child learned. Proper speech and posture and other signs of respect helped to bring him into the community of civilized human beings. No longer.
Young males, of course, have always been rough around the edges. But in the past, their edges were smoothed, in part, by being introduced into female company. Boys learned to behave properly first from their mothers and later around other women and girls. They held open doors, pulled out chairs, stood up when a woman entered a room, stood up in public places to offer their seats, took off their hats in the presence of women, and carefully guarded their language so as not to offend the fair sex. All that is gone. In no other aspect of their conduct is barbarism more apparent among a large number of young men these days than in their treatment of women.
Not only do they not show women any special regard. They go out of their way to bother them. A woman does not like to be yelled at by men in passing cars or from dormitory rooms. She does not like to walk by a group of imposing, leering young men only to hear them cutting up after she passes. She does not like to be the subject of jests and sexual innuendo. But this sort of thing goes on all the time. Young women who appear in public, whether in a dance club, at a pub, or in a shopping mall, are constantly accosted by packs of young males on the prowl who consider it their inalienable right to make crude, suggestive advances. These days young males curse with abandon in front of women, often in reference to sex. Nighttime finds barbarians reveling in the pick-up, hook-up culture of the bar scene. In short, the company of women no longer brings out the best in young men. Around the opposite sex, the adolescent and post-adolescent males of today are at their worst.
The problem of the modern barbarian is no academic or fastidious concern. Plato was right to regard the education and civilization of spirited males as the sine qua non of a decent political order. They are the natural watchdogs of society. When they are not properly trained, they become at best nuisances and at worst something much more dangerous.
Men Without Chests
At the other extreme from true manliness is the wimp. Wimps are in many ways the opposite of barbarians. We would be mistaken, however, to classify wimps as simply young men without muscle. Often enough they are the stereotypical 98-pound weaklings who get sand kicked in their faces at the beach. But slightness of build and want of talent in sports do not make one a wimp. The diminutive and sickly James Madison was a man, just as was the towering and vigorous George Washington.
If barbarians suffer from a misdirected manliness, wimps suffer from a want of manly spirit altogether. They lack what the ancient Greeks called thumos, the part of the soul that contains the assertive passions: pugnacity, enterprise, ambition, anger. Thumos compels a man to defend proximate goods: himself, his honor, his lady, his country; as well as universal goods: truth, beauty, goodness, justice. Without thumotic men to combat the cruel, the malevolent, and the unjust, goodness and honor hardly have a chance in our precarious world. But two conditions must be present for thumos to fulfill its mission. First, the soul must be properly ordered. Besides thumos, symbolized by the chest, the soul is composed of reason and appetites, symbolized by the head on the one hand and the stomach and loins on the other. Reason has the capacity to discern right from wrong, but it lacks the strength to act. Appetites, while necessary to keep the body healthy, pull the individual toward pleasures of a lower order. In the well-ordered soul, as C.S. Lewis put it, "the head rules the belly through the chest." In the souls of today's barbarians, clearly thumos has allied itself with the unbridled appetites, and reason has been thrown out the window.
The second condition that must be present is a sufficient level of thumos to enable the man to rise to the defense of honor or goodness when required. Modern education and culture, however, have conspired to turn modern males into what C. S. Lewis called "men without chests," that is, wimps. The chest of the wimp has atrophied from want of early training. The wimp is therefore unable to live up to his duties as a man:
We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
Wimps make worthless watchdogs. But their failure as watchdogs or guardians has nothing to do with size or physique. My father used to tell me when I was growing up, "It is not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog" that matters. Many of today's young men seem to have no fight in them at all. Not for them to rescue damsels in distress from the barbarians. Furthermore, wimps vote. As Aristotle pointed out, to the cowardly, bravery will seem more like rashness and foolhardiness than what it really is. Hence political and social issues that require bravery for their solution elicit only hand-wringing and half-measures from the wimps. Wimps are always looking for the easy way out.
Like the barbarian, the wimp is easily recognized by his personality and preoccupations. His main passion is music. Music does not serve him as it does the Platonic guardian, to balance his soul. Nor is he usually a performer or student of music. He has no affinity for classical symphony or opera. Rather, he finds that certain types of music evoke a mood of listless self-infatuation. He may at times listen to music with friends. And he will probably try to express his interest in a girl by quoting a song lyric. Nonetheless, his absorption with music is essentially a private refuge from the challenges of the world.
In addition to music, the wimp may take an interest in the opposite sex. But his approach to dating and relationships is different from the barbarian. The barbarian has simple appetites. His ideal is the Playboy playmate or the winner of a hot legs contest at Daytona Beach, and his ultimate aim in any relationship or encounter, whatever he may say, is sex. As an athlete, the barbarian is a hero of sorts. He walks with an unmistakable air of confidence. The wimp, on the other hand, has more complex reasons for wanting women. Although sex is certainly one of his desires, more than sex he needs affirmation. He desperately needs a girlfriend to boost his self-confidence. Having someone else notice him will somehow show the world that he is not a total loser. The wimp also needs someone to hear his laments, to commiserate with him when he is feeling down, to discover his secret self. Since he has few qualities or achievements to recommend him, he seeks to appear "interesting" or mysterious. Initially, the wimp might seem amusing to an unsuspecting young lady and very different from the insensitive jocks and rowdies she has known. Ultimately, however, the wimp seeks to draw her into his web of melancholy and self-pity. The story always ends unhappily since romance cannot be based upon pity or the thin facade of personality. He might mope and whine his way into a woman's bed but will find excuses to avoid "commitment." The wimp will begin the relationship by saying, "You're the only one who understands me" and end it by saying, "You don't understand me at all." The truth is that there is not much to understand.
The wimp is unmanly in other ways, especially when compared to young men in the past. Throughout history men have come of age by preparing for war, going to sea, felling forests, or even mastering Latin and Greek. Besides listening to music, however, how does the average wimp spend the most formative years of his life? Shopping. Andy Warhol was, in this respect, a paragon of wimpiness. Whenever he felt down and was tired of painting soup cans, he would go shopping to cheer himself up. After his death, bags upon bags of unused products were found in his New York apartment. The wimp is a perfect consumer. In the largest sense, he consumes the liberties and public treasures his forefathers have passed on to him through their "blood, toil, tears, and sweat," without himself adding anything back to the common stock.
Needless to say, these sketches are not exhaustive. Barbarians and wimps come in many forms in a society that celebrates Diversity as we do. But all of them remind us that Plato's quandary was a timeless one and is our quandary no less than his. Our civilization cannot be sustained by barbarians or wimps; it needs true men.
Brave New World
The world has always had its share of wimps and barbarians. Throughout history and literature they have appeared under the names of rogues, scoundrels, boors, ne'er-do-wells, namby-pambies, fops, and macaroni men, to name a few. What needs explaining is why these two obviously defective character types have become so common, at times seeming like the norm.
A close look at the culture in which boys are raised reveals not only that they are no longer encouraged to become vigorous and responsible men, but also that practically every factor affecting their development is profoundly hostile to the ideals and practices of traditional manhood and the painstaking steps necessary to attain it. The demanding regime of physical and moral instruction that used to turn boys into men and the larger cultural forces that supported that instruction have been systematically dismantled by a culture that ostensibly enables all individuals but in reality disables men. "It's too easy!" complained John the Savage of the overly efficient, overly sexual, overly youthful, overly fun Brave New World. That dehumanizing tyranny of pleasure, described by Aldous Huxley, resembles the world of easy effort and easy virtue that entices adolescent males today to indulge in their appetites at the expense of their nobler longings and passions.
Above all, there is easy sex. The sexual revolution released the sexual urge from its domestic harness. A male need no longer be a man, in character or physique, to have sex. He may be a boy of 14. Unchaperoned girls are not hard to find. They can be lured over to one's house under the pretense of listening to some new CDs. Avoiding dual-career parents' supervision is as easy as walking home from school. Indeed, the school will provide the illusion of safe sex in its required sex education classes, and chances are the school nurse will supply the condoms. What more could a boy want? Not only is sex no longer subordinated to marriage, which was predicated on male responsibility, but the most sly and unsavory characters are now the most rewarded with sex. "Boys will be boys," but they have little incentive to be responsible men.
Coupled with easy sex, easy divorce has also had devastating moral and psychological effects on boys. Half of American boys growing up do not live with their natural fathers. The sons of single mothers lack strong men to usher them into the world of responsible, adult manhood. Divorce, whether in reality or in the acrimonious rhetoric of the mother, impresses upon the boy an image of the father, and therefore of all men, as being irresponsible, deceitful, immature, and often hateful or abusive towards women. For sons, the divided loyalties occasioned by divorce actually create profound doubts about their own masculinity. As the boy approaches manhood, he is plagued by subconscious questions which have no immediate resolution: "Will I be like Dad?" "Do I want to be like Dad?" "What is a man supposed to do?"
Even when boys live with fathers, or when divorced mothers remarry, the erstwhile "man of the house" has diminished considerably in stature. The traditional father was the sole breadwinner, the chief disciplinarian, and the figure who sat at the head of the table and spoke with authority on matters of politics, economics, and religion. Loving his children, he did not spare the rod. A new breed of parent (fathers are hardly to be distinguished from mothers) has arrived on the scene. The new parent has invented a new way of disciplining sons, adhering firmly to the principles of "self-esteem." The boy is never wrong, is never spanked, and is never made to feel ashamed. Postmodern parents believe, at least until it is too late, that raising children must be easy since the nature of children is basically good. I had no idea how entrenched these post-Spockian ideas were until I became a school principal and began hearing how parents talk about correcting their children. The word "punishment" no longer exists in the parental lexicon; it has been replaced by "consequences." Boys are not made to feel ashamed for bad behavior; they must reconsider their "poor choices." Least of all will parents spank their sons; if you suggest that they should, they look at you in horror, for after all, "violence only breeds violence." Of course, this softer form of discipline does not really work. When "time-outs" and restricted use of the internet prove unavailing, then it is time for counseling and Ritalin.
The old form of discipline was quick, direct, clear-cut, and effective. The new non-punitive discipline is time-consuming, indirect, muddled, and ineffective. Every breaking of the rules requires a long discussion in which the boy gets to express his "feelings" and therefore make his case. This new form of easy discipline actually compromises the boy's moral growth in several ways. First, he receives no real punishment for wrongdoing and is not made to feel shame. The absence of these traditional external and internal sanctions inhibits his development of self-control. Second, rather than truly learning to be responsible and to accept the real consequences of his actions, he learns to be litigious and whiny. Worst of all, to the extent his father is involved in all this nonsense, he sees the man who should be his master and mentor not as an authoritative figure who imposes order and dispenses justice but as a craven coddler who shudders to injure an errant boy's self-esteem. On the surface, the boy is glad to skim by without getting into too much trouble. Deep down, he knows that his father is no man and so looks abroad for more energetic examples of thumotic manhood.
Schools for Sissies
No less than at home, at school the boy encounters a world that thwarts any natural drive to become a true man. As Christina Hoff Sommers has shown, some schools are actively trying to remove any vestiges of traditional culture that work to the benefit and inspiration of boys: older forms of academic competition such as math and spelling bees, the preponderance of male heroes who can no longer outnumber female heroines, even school playgrounds and games like dodge ball. Even when schools are not deliberately trying to emasculate young boys, the world of education can appear feminized and overly pampering to young males. In elementary school, over 90 percent of the teachers are women. Having no decent curriculum to guide them, as is the case in most schools, these female teachers will quite innocently and unimaginatively choose books and assignments that do not appeal to boys in the least. The boy student will have to suffer through Charlotte's Web three or four times but never hear of Captains Courageous or Treasure Island or Sherlock Holmes.
When he gets into middle and high school he may begin to have male teachers. But these are the tired, ineffective, jaded clock-watchers and pension-seekers of Theodore Sizer's Horace's Compromise. Horace lets the half of the class he cannot control talk for the whole period while he passes out worksheets to the half of the class who still care about grades. Horace is a wimp. If the boy sees any energy on the part of men at the school it is among the coaching staff. Coaches know how to appeal to the thumotic element in boys in order to train them to win, and they actually work hard on the field. They appear far less energetic and in command, however, when they must teach a history class, for there are only so many health and P.E. courses a school can offer.
Beyond these decayed institutions, the broader cultural landscape inhibits the transformation of boys into good men. Radical feminism, to name one feature of this landscape, has in some ways undermined the relations between the sexes. Radical feminists have not directly changed the character of traditional men. There are still a number of gentlemen who will open doors for ladies at the risk of being told off by the occasional woman out to prove her equality and independence. What feminism has done, in conjunction with political correctness, is deprive overly non-offensive, modern parents of the language traditionally used to bring up young boys: "Be a man." "Stick up for your sister." "Quit throwing the ball like a sissy." "Quit crying like a girl." Instead, we have a lot of lukewarm, androgynous talk about "being a good person" and "showing respect to people." A naturally rambunctious and irascible boy, though, is not too interested in being a good person. For if he achieves that status, what will distinguish him from his prim and proper sister? The parents have no language to answer their son's deepest and most natural needs.
Rites of Passage
Finally, today's boys mill about their adolescent and post-adolescent years lacking any formal, approved rite of passage that would turn them into men. The American frontier disappeared in 1890. The call of the sea did not survive much longer. All-male colleges, where young men used to compete against each other in the lecture halls and on the playing field, can now be counted on the fingers of one hand. President Eliot of Harvard told his student body on taking office in 1869, "The best way to put boyishness to shame is to foster scholarship and manliness." Could a college president say that today to a student body in which males are the distinct minority? While the opening up of commerce and industry to women has increased their economic freedom and equality, men have lost one more arena in which to prove themselves, as George Gilder has elegantly shown. Moreover, most of the jobs offered in the new economy hardly appeal to the spiritedness in man. Certainly, the military still beckons many spirited boys coming out of high school, but the entire armed services constitute less than one percent of the American population and must make room for a fair number of women in their ranks. In short, modern America lacks what virtually every society in the past has established and governed with great effort and concern: a proving ground for male youth seeking some legitimate expression of their erratic and as yet undisciplined spiritedness.
The sum effect is an environment that demands virtually nothing special of boys as they grow into men. Many aspects of modern culture are debilitating for girls as well as boys, but the lack of dramatic challenge is not one of them. The recent statistics comparing girls' to boys' academic achievements worldwide demonstrate what any teacher in the country knows: that girls are achieving as never before and are outdistancing boys. Perhaps the kinder, gentler, nurturing, egalitarian, consultative, non-competitive approach to education and family has been a boon for girls. Yet what is good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander. As Father Walter Ong expressed it, the male nature, in order to prove itself, in order to distinguish itself from the potentially emasculating feminine world into which the boy is born, longs for some "againstness" in the natural or moral world which the boy can overcome. But in our culture everything is too easy. Boys are not compelled, indeed not allowed, to fight anymore. They cannot fight on the playground. Nor can they fight for grades, for a girl, for God, or for country (though September 11 has altered this last). Even the saints of old would find the 21st century an inhospitable place, for how could they "fight the good fight" against their own fallen nature in a world supposedly without sin?
So how is Murphy Brown's little Avery doing? He is 11 now. He has grown up under an overbearing mother who has occasionally brought men home, though none has stayed. While Murphy has pursued her successful career, Avery has been showered with material possessions to give him something to do during the long stretches of the day when he finds himself at home alone or left to an indifferent nanny, finished with his half hour of easy homework, which his mother will check over and often redo for him after they have eaten the pizza or take-out Chinese she picked up on the way home from work. Every time Avery has a problem at school or in the neighborhood, Murphy solves it for him with the same decisiveness she demonstrates at the network, thus proving to her son and to herself that she is a good mother.
Avery has posters on his wall of Eminem, Kobe Bryant, and Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit. He is becoming interested in girls but is still too shy to say much to them. Still, he has learned a lot about women on the internet, and his favorite rap songs tell him precisely how to relate to women and what women want. His mother, for her part, has told him a lot about the value of "respecting people." Avery has never been hunting or fishing. True, Avery and his mother used to have fun times at the park and on trips when she could get away from work, but now he is beginning to pull away from her when she rubs his head in an affectionate way. They are not as close as they used to be.
The next few, crucial years of Avery's life will determine what kind of man he will be. Will he rest in wretched contentment with the ease and luxury provided by his oft-absent, deep-voiced mother, or will he rebel with other boys his own age, raised much like him, by finding his own rites of passage in drugs and sex and acts of petty delinquency, or worse? Will he become a wimp or a barbarian?