In our time of fatherlessness, underachieving boys, social fraying, and the collapse of marriage, helping boys to become men needs to be done. We owe it to them in justice, or else we will not have healthy families, parishes, neighborhoods, and towns.
Many years ago, in an article for Touchstone called, “A Requiem for Friendship,” I wrote that the public acceptance of homosexuality would cast suspicion on physical expressions of friendship among males, and would make it more difficult for boys to forge strong friendships in the first place, especially if such boys were shy or not athletic. I said that all civilizations have been built upon those bonds: the team, the platoon, the guild, the hunting party, the council, the work crew, the school. I begged people to consider that in this matter as in others in human life, to condone the bad thing you notice in front of you is to curtail or damage or obliterate the good thing you do not notice, because you have taken it for granted, or because you do not care overmuch for the people who will be hurt.
Absolutely nothing of what I said then will I retract now. Rather, I will add this. If you so much as express in writing a concern for the plight of boys, someone will rush to cast suspicion upon you, as if you were no other and no better than a Ted McCarrick eyeing up the seminarians at the swimming pool. I will wager that when Helen Hunt Jackson went out west in the 1880’s to observe the Indians and write about their plight, many a sniffing woman or sniggering man nodded to say, “We know what she really wants, and it ain’t justice.”
For myself, I haven’t belonged to an all-male anything since I was twelve years old and in the Little League. I have no interest in it. I’ve never hung around with “the boys,” drinking or playing cards or whatnot. My father was all the mentor I ever needed. But what I happen to need and what others need may be quite different things, especially in our time of fatherlessness, underachieving boys, social fraying, and the collapse of marriage. I stick up for the boys because nobody else will, and the shabby neglect of their interests disgusts me. That I do not write about the troubles of girls, which I can know only by observation, is neither here nor there, any more than it was a point against Mrs. Jackson that she did not address working conditions for the immigrant Irish in New England. No one can do everything. Everyone can do something.
And helping boys to become men needs to be done. We owe it to them in justice, nor will we have healthy families, parishes, neighborhoods, and towns otherwise.
I marvel that those in our midst who attribute differences in results to prejudice and systemic injustice never apply that line of reasoning to boys. Yet in their case the argument is most strong. If we look at ethnic groups and their performance relative to others, we must account for innumerable factors besides ethnicity. What is their income? Is there a father in the home? Do they live in the city, the suburbs, or the country? How well do they speak or read English? Do they live in the south or the north, the coastal areas or the heartland? What are their schools like? What traditional skills or moral imperatives do they bring to bear upon their lives in the United States? Do they have strong extended families that can be sources of employment or capital?
But for boys, as compared with girls, none of these factors comes into play. They live in exactly the same families as their sisters, in exactly the same economic and social conditions.
Here, someone who would in no other case bring up the matter of native intelligence will suggest that the boys aren’t as smart as the girls. I am sorry, but that does not wash. For human males, the distribution of intelligence is broader, higher at the ends and flatter in the middle. That means the boys will be overrepresented at the high end, just as they are overrepresented at the low end; and the higher you go, the greater the differential will be. All other things being equal, then, we should expect more boys in college than girls. Yet most college students are girls, not boys; and plenty of boys who were born with live-wire brains are languishing, doing nothing with their lives, achieving nothing. If it were any other group but boys, we would consider this to be manifestly wrong, and a tremendous waste of talent.
May I say that very few of our cultural and social institutions are healthy? Why is it preposterous to suppose that this wasted talent is a large part of the reason?
Someone here may say that a true conservative will lay the blame upon the individual, not upon the society. I have three replies to the objection. First, I am a Roman Catholic and a Christian, not an individualist. The individual as such is something of an abstraction, because human beings, made in the image of the three-Person God, are ineluctably social to the core. That is our nature. We are what we are in being-for, not in competing-against or in standing-aside. Indeed individualism, as an ideology or as a habit of stage-performance, is a large part of our problem, in that neither boys nor girls are taught that almost all of them will be destined for marriage and family life, so that their choices now must prepare them for their duties then.
Second, the true conservative should remember that stupidities and injustices can spread through a society without their being codified into law, although bad laws and political policies can corroborate them and make them very hard, if not practically impossible, to ameliorate. Every law in the last 60 years that has had to do in one way or another with sex has struck a blow at the family, whose health no one has kept in mind, though to its destruction many (Shulamith Firestone, Simone de Beauvoir) have been perversely committed. Some of these laws have been supported by self-styled conservatives: think of Ronald Reagan and no-fault divorce. For the sake of the poor at least, whose families have been hurt the worst by such laws and the antisocial habits they engender and reward, we must repent, turn ourselves about, and begin to undo the harm we have so heedlessly done.
Third, we are not talking about adults here. We are talking about mere children. I have often told my students that in the works of Shakespeare and Dickens, cruelty to children is an absolute evil that never goes unpunished. It seems to me that every single educational movement in my lifetime has been, as if by design, most frustrating to boys. We can make up a long list. No time for wild play; sharp cutbacks of athletic teams; elimination of geography from the curriculum; teaching math by verbal description; no military history; elimination of that math-like thing once called grammar; elimination of most vocational-technical programs; purging of boy-hero stories; fewer and fewer single-sex schools for those who may need them; and the lie, so often told that we greet it with a shrug, that their sex is responsible for everything evil in the world.
That last one is poison. I’m old-fashioned enough to think that people who poison children are monsters.
All that said, why should Catholics care about it especially? Do we really have to ask that question? Precisely what good accrues to our faith, when the principal human institution which is meant to deliver it, the family, is shot full of holes? Where are the good men for our daughters to marry? Or did we think that men simply sprout up, like weeds? They are not among us, because we neglected to make them. Why is your choir all gray, and mostly female? Where are the young and child-rich families to invigorate your parishes? They are not among us, because we neglected to raise boys to be fathers and girls to be mothers.
Will the leaders of my Church notice? Do they want to notice?
Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine (January 2021).
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.