Schools and Culture: The Decline of the Masculine Principle

The day is overcast, but thankfully the rain has held off, and for now the greatest worry is that the top of Mt. Index will be socked in by the lower reaches of the cloud cover, and rob us of our view. Years before a companion and I have climbed to a ridge a couple of hundred feet above Lake Serene, and marveled at the cliffs of Index rising 3500 feet above the lake, and at the enormity of the natural amphitheater formed by the peak, the huge bowl of the lake, and the surrounding rock fall. The Northwest Avalanche Center warns of “considerable” avalanche danger this Saturday, so we hope the relatively low altitude (2500 feet) of the lake, though its approach holds snow, will provide us a safe outing, and perhaps a return to the viewing platform I hold in my memory.

Those of you who are hikers and climbers will understand that one of the pleasures of the mountains is the conversation that winds its way up the trails and into the hills, sometimes personal, sometimes professional, sometimes nothing memorable other than companionable. The perfect outing involves insight as well as the satisfaction of pitting body and psyche against the mountains. The better the talk, the less wearying the climb, a psychic anesthetic.

On this stage I begin to tell my friend Karl of my students and what seem to be the cultural baggage with which they walk into my office. Too many seem not to know what it means to be held accountable, seem rather to expect for them all shall be provided. Too many seem not to know how to respond constructively to challenge, and to adversity, or even to not know that they should do so. They seem not to hear the crunching feet of reality speaking to them from their future, “prepare, prepare.” Sometimes they do not seem to be able to start, and then to sustain.

Former Marine, Karl, he links my tale to the decline of the masculine principle in our culture, which fits neatly with what I see from a different vantage point as a failure of culture to hold kids accountable.

One of the revolutions of the last forty or fifty years is an increased feminization of our culture. We raise children in a manner that we see as enhancing their self esteem and which attempts to shield them from the assorted slings and arrows of childhood and adolescence. The viewpoint of the individual is accepted as valid – in fact all viewpoints are valid – as part of avoiding that confrontation where one person or argument is wrong and another is right. (In fact, isn’t it true that there are few absolutes, and that reality is many headed?) Articles appear in prominent media arguing that the rise of the corporate woman is timely as interpersonal skills are needed to manage the complex interactions of the corporate environment. And so forth.

Meanwhile the higher education of men slips behind the ascendance of women, and our boys in school lag well behind the accomplishments of our girls.

These are familiar cultural trends, both celebrating the rise of women to equality and lamenting the seeming confusion of men as the masculine principle seems to be subtly degraded, with exceptions such as in the military.

So let me posit for now a rough definition of the masculine principle for the sake of elaborating on Karl’s hypothesis and how it might relate to what cultural implications we see in schools. To be clear, I do not imply that masculine implies only men, or that feminine implies only women. The masculine “principle”, to the contrary, refers to certain archetypal characteristics that traditionally have been linked to men, but not only men.
So here goes. Let’s start with accountability. Because the concept draws a line and says, in effect, “you get this only when and after you do this,” it seems to me to be a masculine principle, an unambiguous order, a rule without elaboration. Let me attempt again to be politically correct! Women, too, are rule givers. But I would argue that we have fuzzed the rules in raising our children, well intentioned as we are, men and women both. Maybe we have fuzzed too much, raised our children with too little of the masculine, of accountability. Can too much understanding and sympathy, arguably feminine attributes, leave our kids with too little resilience in dealing with challenge? Do we not develop ego strength and self confidence by dealing with slings and arrows? Don’t get me wrong, guarding self esteem is a good thing, and likely in earlier eras personalities grew constrained in negative ways by harsh child rearing and unthinking actions of the adults around children. Clearly we should guide our children as they learn to surmount challenge. This does not mean to protect them utterly.

In this faux self esteem era, we have children that think so highly of themselves in narrow dimensions by adult standards, that they tune adult authority out by the time of adolescence, before they have learned how to negotiate the increasingly rigorous learning standards we place before them. Rather than engage such difficulties, too many retreat into their social networks and their baubles they have not yet earned.

Moreover, my diverse suburban kids seem not to know how to begin. Here again, the masculine takes action, the feminine is more passive, receptive. Some among my students, though they wish to improve their academic imprint on some level, and know they need to do so, seem to waver before they begin, flail at brief fits and starts, and muster an effort only greater than that before by mediocre dimensions. I find myself wanting to kick them in the rear and, dear God, I admit, wanting to tell them to “Just Do It,” so imbued as I apparently am with the essentials of sports marketing.

In fact, finding ways to teach the concept of starting is surprisingly difficult. The images that occur to my thinking, that of a mule moving forward dumbly, though with purpose, up a trail, the sports image of putting one’s shoulder down and driving through a tackle, or challenging one’s body in a climb up a mountainside, are physical metaphors, blunt brute instruments, masculine in content and not particularly subtle. “Fight through it.”  “Figure it out.” I adopt simple strategies. “Just do the work”, which too many have not been doing.

This last strategy is in honor of a bright former student who I hounded to realize his potential. At one point I realized I hadn’t seen him for perhaps six to eight months. I ran into him in the hall shortly after. I asked how he was doing academically. He was doing well, more than passing all of his classes. “What was the secret of your turnaround?” “It’s pretty simple,” he replied, “all you have to do is do the work.” You might imagine I have retold that story more than once.

The Buddha would tell me that one learns also in contemplation, but am not sure my students have reached that rarified a plane.

As a counselor, my work has a significant feminine quality. I listen, I understand. But I find myself getting angry with the passivity of too many of my students. I begin to wonder if that anger is diagnostic of their overt dependence, and that they need masculine signals, pointed direction as to what they should do next, without question, because we adults who know better tell them to do so. My German father and my very self disciplined mother would be proud. And so, too, perhaps, my friend Karl would concur.

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