Schools and Culture: More on the Masculine Principle

My buddy Bill and I frequent sports contests. Formerly professional colleagues, we have found over the years that one way we keep in touch in our too busy lives is to set up a few games down the road that we mark on our calendar, and leave free from other commitments.

Thus we find ourselves on the way to Seattle for a Mariners game and yet another BS session. Our wives regularly ask us what we talk about during our outings, to which we gleefully reply, “oh, nothing!!!” We suspect that our wives believe we have really not talked about anything of consequence, unless the progress of the Mariners counts as consequence, and they are right some of the time. Much of what Bill and I talk about bears no repeat, and no honor whatsoever, truly goofball weavings.

But in truth we do talk, being men of substance in our own minds. We were colleagues once as community mental health therapists. Bill has continued as a therapist; I have migrated back to the schools where I began my professional life. Many of our conversations wend their way through schools and other versions of psychological life.

So it is that I tell him the tale I’ve recently told here, that of Karl, our mountain hike, his thoughts in response to my lament about my students, about the state of masculinity in our culture, and my subsequent elaboration on that theme. (See post June 6, 2011, Schools and Culture: The Decline of the Masculine Principle)

Though Bill and I have talked at various stages of my career about my students and my ongoing frustration with the inability of too many of them to respond to challenge, the masculine angle seems to strike a particular chord for him. Over recent years he, too, has become frustrated with the seeming inability of many of his clients to get off square one, just as I have described my students as wanting to make change, recognizing they need to do so, but lacking the wherewithal to substantively change their behavior. Bill’s clients attend sessions dutifully enough, though some are required by the courts, so with a mixed menu of motivation and commitment depending on the individual. But across a spectrum of particularly male clients themes emerge that echo my own experience. Difficulties making first steps toward change, inability to identify tactical action, failure of perseverance through adversity. In the end, persistent dependence, stuck on neutral.

And, similar to my own response, Bill finds himself shifting from what is a standard therapeutic stance to a more directive, prescriptive tone. That is, where he might previously have been more a guide on the side, reflecting feelings, contouring topics discussed, and trusting in the client’s motivation to seek change, he has become more likely to simply tell the client what to do, much as I have found myself prescribing action more to my students. Instead of awaiting the isolated client’s plan to become more socially involved, Bill might now assign him to join a group of people that share the client’s interests. Another paralyzed by inaction around financial difficulties might be told to set up an appointment with a financial advisor, and so forth.

Those of a therapeutic bent may recognize echoes of what is know as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, as I understand it one of the few psychological therapies with a research base to validate it. In variance from standard talk therapy, CBT seeks to change the thoughts that accompany, in one instance, depression, from the negatively ruminative to the half glass full variety, or to change behavior directly without necessarily examining the deeper underlying issues.

In my work, I do find myself constantly “reframing” the cognitive experience of my students. To an apparently but unnecessarily paralyzing doubt, I frame it as “normal” and prescribe next steps to take. (But do they follow through?) To those who vow to do better but don’t persevere, the prescription is some version of get back up on the horse after it throws you……

And my friend Bill similarly plots a course of action for his clientele, wary of the bog in which too many previous clients have remained, and with the hope that setting out on an exterior road of change will induce inner reconstruction.

Is the establishment of Cognitive Behavioral techniques in recent decades a response culturally to the decline of the masculine principle? In other words, as individuals, particularly the young and the emotionally disabled, become less able to act constructively on their own, so arises an activist kind of therapy that directs and prescribes the action to be taken? And shows efficacy via research because this principle is exactly what is lacking in the lives of our young?

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