Boys' Schools: Beginning a New Conversation

Remarks from the St. Albans Annual Parent Dinner

January 23, 2019

Good evening.

The program says I am now supposed to deliver the “Keynote Address,” which sounds rather daunting. I hope we might think of this less as an address and more as a conversation, one that has been on my mind for some time and that I am eager to have with all of you. As I reach the halfway mark of my first year as Headmaster of St. Albans, it feels like the right moment for me to share some reflections with you on my early months at the school and the opportunities that lie before us.

My understanding is that the Headmaster has typically used this occasion less to speak about the state of the school and more to address an issue or question on the mind of parents and educators.

In that spirit, I’d like to share a story about something that happened last week while I was attending a series of alumni events in several different cities throughout the country. On one particular evening, I happened to be talking to an alumnus who is a very prominent physician at a world-renowned medical center. He pulled me aside and said he had something very important to share with me. What he wanted to tell me—what he wanted to make sure I understood during my first year as Headmaster—is that of all the experiences and opportunities in his life, St. Albans was where he learned the most about himself, his values, his character, and the kind of life he wanted to lead. He told me this several times, pausing for emphasis to impress the importance of his message upon me. I smiled and told him how delighted I was to hear this. I also told him that one of the great privileges of my first year at St. Albans is hearing so many alumni tell a similar story about the singular, indispensable role the school played in their formation.

These are powerful stories that speak to the enduring resonance of the school’s mission and the powerful role that our traditions have played in the lives of the men who now look back on this experience with such reverence for what they learned here.

But as I have often argued since my arrival, our traditions at St. Albans are more than just monuments and memories from the past. Our traditions are vibrant, living realities. Just as we transform the lives of the boys under our care, we have always been committed to the renewal and transformation of ourselves, to an aspirational rather than a fossilized understanding of our mission. Only in this way can we continue to grow, improve, and remain thoughtfully engaged with the great questions of our time.

Bishop Mariann Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, who has become a good friend and mentor to me, likes to quote a passage from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians to make an important point about how we as humans think about our place in the flow of time and history. Quoting a passage from Isaiah 49:8, Paul says to the early Christian Church at Corinth:

“At the acceptable time I listened to you, and on the day of salvation I helped you.”

Behold, now is the acceptable time.

(2 Corinthians 6:2)

As in many other places in the Bible, Paul is suggesting that there are two senses of time in our individual lives and in the lives of the communities we inhabit. There is the ordinary flow of daily events, the unfolding of time within familiar categories and established patterns (chronos is the Ancient Greek word for this conventional sense of time measured in clocks, calendars, and the chronologies of history). But then there is what Paul refers to as “the acceptable time” or kairos, which captures a deeper sense of time—the sense of a moment of opportunity or a “readiness,” when we come to feel that the ground has been prepared for a question that we previously could not ask or a way of seeing that previously seemed impossible.

So much of life in a school involves attending to time in the chronological sense: daily schedules, exam periods, semesters, athletic seasons. Indeed, it is often said that a basic measure of a school leader’s competence is his or her ability “to make the trains run on time.”

But I have come to believe that leadership is ultimately about “knowing what time it is” in a deeper sense. It is about knowing where a school community is in the arc of its history and that of the larger culture. It is about preparing for and paying attention to moments of opportunity that make it possible to ask new questions and to see in new ways.

Sometimes these moments of opportunity arrive as challenges that force difficult questions upon us. In seeking to answer them, we discover new ways of seeing ourselves and the world around us. To explain more about what I mean, I offer a story.

Last April, I participated in a conversation group with several other boys' school heads about the future of boys' education. A good friend of mine, a long-serving head of a very well-known boys' school in the Northeast, said he worried we were in the midst of a profoundly challenging, existential moment as leaders of boys' schools unlike any he had seen in his three decades as a boys school educator. The #MeToo movement—and heightened public concern about misogyny, sexual misconduct, and toxic masculinity—has led many to view the very idea of “maleness” as a suspect category in our society and the very notion of an all-boys school as anachronistic, an incubator of male privilege and entitlement.

The acrimonious Supreme Court confirmation hearings from this past October brought added force, emotion, and urgency to these questions.

Much good came of these difficult but important conversations. As the father of two daughters and as someone who has spent long periods of my career working in coeducational environments, I am deeply committed to the project of ensuring equal opportunity and equal dignity for women. This commitment flows from our common humanity and the recognition, deeply embedded in our identity as an Episcopal school, that all human beings have infinite value and worth. I have spoken often since my arrival of the vital importance of our coordinate relationship with our sister school, National Cathedral School (NCS), and of the need for St. Albans to be actively engaged in the work of building a moral, rather than a tribal, conception of “brotherhood,” one based on care, conscience, and civility. As three of our seniors said in a front page article in the Saint Albans News this past fall, “only in asking, listening, noticing, acting, and standing tall as the men of St. Albans will we give to our sisters [at NCS] and in the world what we have owed them for ages.”

As committed as I am to these ideals, I have also come to believe that the project of advancing women’s equality cannot occur unless we engage in an equally serious conversation about the issues and challenges facing boys in our society. Indeed, in ways that I hope to explain, I believe the #MeToo Movement and the great advances made on behalf of women have also made it possible to see boys, boys' schools, and the complexities of maleness in ways we previously could not.

When I talk as a boys' school leader about the challenges facing boys in contemporary society and the constructive role that a boys school can play in the development of a young man, people often respond with skepticism or even incredulity.

The message I often hear from the culture—and that I suspect our boys hear—is either that “Boys Don’t Have Problems” or that “Boys ARE the Problem.”

The “Boys Don’t Have Problems” thesis correctly observes that male leaders in business, law, medicine, government, and the vast majority of institutions still greatly outnumber women. Despite the meaningful gains that women have made since the 1960s, the basic structures and systems of society continue to confer privileges upon men that women do not fully enjoy. “This Is a Man’s World,” as James Brown sang in the 1960s. And so it remains in many ways. For all of these reasons, it is important that our boys become aware of their privileges and the corresponding challenges faced by their female peers. But I worry that when this gets translated as “boys don’t have problems,” the message is that boys can essentially be ignored since their assumed advantages—and their preferred position in a patriarchal society—make them unworthy of any particular attention, sympathy, or support.

When the culture isn’t telling boys that they “don’t have problems,” it is busy telling boys that they ARE the problem.

The “Boys ARE the Problem” thesis was well summarized in a recent Washington Post article:

The very phrase “men’s issues” conjures up images of bitter, angry white guys who stupidly don’t realize that they are oppressors and on top of the world. In the era of #MeToo, men don’t have problems; they are the problem. To some, even talking about men’s problems can brand one as tone-deaf and sexist.

(Andrew L. Yarrow, “Why Progressives Should Stop Avoiding Men’s Issues,” The Washington Post, January 18, 2019)

But as anyone who works with boys knows, there is a complex duality to their status in modern society. Even as they continue to benefit from structural and systemic advantages—and even as our society undergoes a long-overdue reckoning with male sexual misconduct—boys face a distinctive set of challenges that are often underappreciated by society and are therefore difficult to talk about in an open and emotionally honest way.

There was a wonderful piece in The New York Times about a year ago called “The Boys Are Not All Right.” The author observed:

Girls ... still face an abundance of obstacles but go into the world increasingly well equipped to take them on.

The past 50 years have redefined what it means to be female in America. Girls today are told that they can do anything, be anyone. They’ve absorbed the message: They’re outperforming boys in school at every level. But it isn’t just about performance. To be a girl today is to be the beneficiary of decades of conversation about the complexities of womanhood, its many forms and expressions.

Boys, though, have been left behind. No commensurate movement has emerged to help them navigate toward a full expression of their gender. It’s no longer enough to “be a man”—we no longer even know what that means.

Too many boys are trapped in the same suffocating, outdated model of masculinity, where manhood is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others. They are trapped, and they don’t even have the language to talk about how they feel about being trapped, because the language that exists to discuss the full range of human emotion is still viewed as sensitive and feminine.

Men feel isolated, confused and conflicted about their natures. Many feel that the very qualities that used to define them—their strength, aggression and competitiveness—are no longer wanted or needed; many others never felt strong or aggressive or competitive to begin with. We don’t know how to be, and we’re terrified.

(Michael Ian Black, “The Boys Are Not All Right,” The New York Times, February 21, 2018, emphasis added)

Prominent feminist writers have noticed the same pattern. According to Jessica Valenti, author of six books on feminism, “We haven’t built the same structures of support for boys that we have for girls. ... One of feminism’s biggest successes was creating an alternative culture for girls and women seeking respite from mainstream constraints ... But boys and young men who are struggling have no equivalent culture” (Jessica Valenti, “What Feminism Can Do For Boys,” The New York Times, July 25, 2018).

The past week witnessed two more cultural markers in the growing conversation about the afflictions and uncertainties of maleness in modern society.

For the first time in its history, the American Psychological Association (APA) released guidelines for therapists working with boys and men. The APA had long-established guidelines for members of many other groups, including women and girls. But it did not have a guide for working with males, largely because males were considered the default. The historical narrative in the APA report is instructive:

Prior to the ... 1960s, ... all psychology was the psychology of men. Most major studies were done only on white men and boys, who stood in as proxies for humans as a whole ... But just as this old psychology left out women and people of color, ... it also failed to take men’s gendered experiences into account. Once psychologists began studying the experiences of women through a gender lens, it became increasingly clear that the study of men needed the same gender-aware approach.”

(Stephanie Pappas, “APA Issues First-Ever Guidelines for Practice with Men and Boys,” Monitor on Psychology: The Magazine of the American Psychological Association, January 2019, 50:1, p. 34)

The new APA guidelines prompted a good deal of commentary. At the core of the guidelines is a claim that males labor under the burden of what the authors call “traditional masculine ideology,” which is “marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression.” The APA argues that the effects are “psychologically harmful and that socializing boys to suppress their emotions causes damage that echoes both inwardly and outwardly.” According to Ronald Levant, professor of psychology and co-editor of the APA volume The Psychology of Men and Masculinities, “Though men benefit from patriarchy, they are also [hurt] by patriarchy.”

While the report was praised by some and criticized by others, it was an attempt to raise awareness about a neglected part of our national discourse: the distinctive challenges faced by boys and the relative absence of an emotional and moral scaffolding to help boys contend with their identity as men in a world where masculinity has become fraught with complexity—its meaning contested, its value in question.

Just days after the release of the APA report, Gillette—the manufacturer of men’s razors—joined the growing cultural commentary by releasing an advertisement encouraging men to think critically about gender roles in society. For decades, Gillette’s slogan has been “The Best a Man Can Get” (suggesting that men are, by nature, competitive and acquisitive, obsessed with owning and possessing things). But the commercial offers men a new creed and a new vision—“The Best a Man Can Be”—by showing examples of men transcending destructive male stereotypes, speaking out against misogyny, and being their best selves.

To some, the advertisement seemed a gratuitous exercise in corporate virtue-signaling. But like the APA guidelines, it suggests that something is turning in the culture—that a long-overdue conversation about boys, men, and the constructive role they can play as men in our society is beginning to take shape.

In that same conversation I had last April with the 30-year veteran of boys schools—where he spoke of the “crisis of maleness” in our society—he shared a story I will always remember as a beacon of hope in a confusing and complex time. The story is about a mother of one of his former students—a celebrated author and social activist—who was often criticized by her progressive friends for sending her son to an all-boys school. Her response was that boys' schools are the only institutions in our society that do not “pathologize” boys—that do not assume that “toxic” and “masculinity” inevitably go hand in hand.

It is precisely for this reason that boys' schools, in my view, are uniquely positioned to meet both the challenges and opportunities of the present age, providing for boys what the women’s movement has long provided for girls: a culture that affirms each boy’s self-worth, acknowledges the challenges boys face, and provides a safe space for a deep examination of masculinity in all its complexities and manifestations.

Boys' schools begin with the premise that while boys and girls share a common humanity, boys have distinctive natures. They learn differently, experience the world differently, and benefit from being in an environment that understands and honors their distinctive developmental needs as boys. A boys' school says to each and every student: “You have inherent value and worth as a boy. You are not a problem to be corrected, a pathology to be cured. We see the essential goodness in you and believe in your potential as a developing young man.”

Boys' schools also understand, however, that the process of “becoming a man” involves more than “letting boys be boys.”

Becoming a man involves a complex relationship between nature and nurture, between respecting a boy’s essential nature and also recognizing the role that social and cultural factors play in developing a boy’s nature in both positive and negative directions. Cultural forces exert a powerful—and often pathological—influence on the way boys think about the question: “What does it mean to be a man?” Boys' schools, far from reinforcing one-dimensional conceptions of masculinity, are counter-cultural. They encourage boys to reflect deeply and critically on what it means to be man, to interrogate the assumptions society constructs for boys about the meaning of manhood, and to enlarge a boy's conception of who he can become.

Those who know boys' schools also know they are places where young men develop rich emotional lives. Our boys undoubtedly struggle, as all boys do, to access their emotions in a world that too often expects males to display stoic reserve and avoid any sign of vulnerability. But something in the alchemy of a boys' school draws boys out of their emotional reticence and helps them grow more comfortable talking about their feelings, their fears, their struggles, and their desire to live a life of emotional depth and connection with others.

There was a long-running advertisement in the 1990s that satirized the awkwardness men experience when expressing emotion and affection, particularly with one another. The only way a man could get the phrase “I love you” out of his mouth was to qualify it, in the language of the bro-code, by saying: “I love you ... man.”

But something different happens in a boys' school. The first Upper School chapel talk of the year was given by a boy in our senior class. When he finished the talk, every boy in the Upper School walked up to him to shake his hand and embrace him. Many of his friends looked him in the eye—and without any hesitation or pretense or embarrassment—said to him: “I am so proud of you. I love you.” He responded: “I love you, too.”

Such small moments, as tender as they are, do not solve every problem facing men, women, and our society. But they speak to the moral and emotional capacities of the remarkable young men we are privileged to educate here at St. Albans and to the enduring promise of a boys' school. Leadership is about knowing what time it is. And the time has come for us to lead this conversation.

Jason Robinson
St. Albans School (United States)