Teachers know well “the apple does not fall far from the tree.” The annual parent-teacher conference attests and affirms its wisdom: teachers can generally detect in parents both the praiseworthy and cringe-inducing traits found in students.
As an educator, I have followed the way “toxic masculinity” has come to describe elements of our wider culture and to all-male student environments. The idea, as I understand it, is that our culture and school sub-cultures provide males a “script” of masculinity. To perform the male role, a “man” must truncate his emotions, act aggressively, have no qualms objectifying woman, and meet with skepticism if not hostility opinions questioning these “manly” traits.
I’ve caught glimmers of this. While monitoring the student section at sporting events, we had to be vigilant lest the contagion of an ignorant or offensive chant – often culled from YouTube or movies – infect the section and lead to scandal. Bullying or hazing behavior, more often than not, was a reenactment of actions that had been perpetrated against the current aggressors. Off-color jokes were seldom original to my students – they were heard on tv or at home. In general, their “toxic” behaviors were less self-initiated than imitated.
The French theorist René Girard has helped make sense of these phenomena. He observed that many of us assume we desire in a linear way: I desire product A because I am rational and independent. His study of literature led him to challenge this model. His insight was that “we desire according to the desire of another.” From cell phones to jeans, most of our desires are mediated to us. We want what we want because we imitate others’ desires. This is the secret of marketing: advertisers do not just sell a beer or a car. They entice us with a lifestyle, they try to get us to desire a way of being. Eden’s serpent was the first of advertising’s Mad Men.
I mention this because conversations about “toxic masculinity” vis-à-vis schools presume young men inhabit a world akin to Lord of the Flies with little or no adult supervision. This is not the case. At preparatory schools, I can’t imagine students roaming without supervision or lingering in locker rooms. I think the “bro culture” at some schools and sports teams can magnify and exacerbate problems, but they are not the root of the problem. Toxicity’s source is, I suspect, not just closer to home. It is the home. The “toxic masculinity” we justly decry does not originate apart from the family. It is learned through imitation as part of it: poison trees beget toxic apples.
Any toxic culture’s core is found in a sense of exceptionalism: rules, cultural and social mores, simply do not apply to me. Teachers see this. We talk about drinking, educate against racism and sexism, and many of us try to set a good example. Sure, there are faculty who normalize deviant behavior with a wink, but I think they are exceptions. But pundits are woefully out of touch with reality if they assume any school can, single-handedly, transform or reform students. In the end, however, students are at school for around eight hours a day, in our classes for approximately forty-five minutes. They go home to their families, they find support in their families, and they look to the examples set by their families and friends. If our lessons are not reinforced at home, they are worthless.
I don’t need to stretch to produce examples. We knew well that the heaviest nights of drinking took place not when parents were away but when they hosted. They “justified” this by saying that if the kids were going to break the law, they should at least do it in a protective environment. Rather than calling them to a higher standard, or an acknowledgment of the law, they teach an important lesson: “Some follow the rules some of the time.” Little wonder their sons “go and do likewise” so cavalierly, albeit with less restraint and potentially life-altering consequences.
Now consider: when a student is caught cheating, whose reaction is most volatile? In my experience, the perpetrator will eventually break down in tears or at least express some contrition. My worry, as a teacher, was the parents. The more affluent the parent, the more strident the protests of unfairness, the more clamor over how “this will impact college prospects,” the more threats – veiled and not so veiled – were made against the institution. Even when the student knew he had been in the wrong, in the vast majority of cases the parents sprung to his defense. The refrain: we know the rules, but he should be given an exemption, he should be the exception. In my experience, the best parents do deal with were those of a humbler background and they regularly supported our decisions. Their logic, like ours, tended to be the same: better to be caught and punished for something relatively minor than to allow this to become a settled habit that will be far dire when stakes are higher.
Our culture is sick. We ricochet from one outrage to another, one “moment of reckoning” to another, yet little seems to change. We’ve grown adept at calling out sins of commission – seemingly endless scurrilous accusations and public trials affirm this. This needs to be complemented with a cultural examination of our sins of omission, the ways we are and remain willfully blind to our complicity in this. In the old days, we used a now-derided word to describe how we find ourselves in this mess together: sin. Many avoid this word because it is feared it will make someone feel guilty. Well, perhaps that is just what is necessary – perhaps people really need to wake up to not only how they are guilty but how they pass this guilt on to others.
Jesus admonishes: “By their fruits you will know them.” Genuine repentance does not call for hand-wringing and flaccid mea culpa’s. It demands rolling up our sleeves and doing the hard work of tending to our roots – civic, ecclesial, and familial – to pare away instances of blight, to reassess our desires and our priorities, and model the integrated masculinity and femininity we want to see in the next generation.