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How schools are helping boys achieve a healthy view of masculinity

Toxic-masculinity is on the way out. English teacher and Housemaster of Bryanston School, Stephen Davies, discusses how recent thinking and events surrounding the topic of masculinity has brought to light the role that boarding schools have in helping boys nurture healthy relationships with their peers.

When I was 18 years old, I had a job on a building site. During a breakfast break one day I got a copy of Jane Eyre out of my bag and started reading – it was on the list for my university course. The other guys on the site generally tolerated me (in between some pretty graphic teasing) but in reading Jane Eyre it seemed I had crossed a line. ‘That’s a girls’ book!’ was the conclusion. ‘Why are you reading that?’ I was asked. There was even a girl on the cover, but she didn’t look like the girls did in The Sun calendar on the wall of our portakabin.

In my head, I answered that perhaps if Jane Eyre is a ‘girls’ book’ then that is all the more reason to be reading it. Why not, as a young man, try to understand the workings of a young woman’s mind? Books are about developing knowledge of others and from knowledge comes empathy and understanding, so why not learn to see things from a different point of view? Why do boys have to limit their experiences to solely male stories? I didn’t argue back at the time.

Now, of course, I wish I had challenged my friends and colleagues on the site. Years later, the apparently post-feminist world we live in sometimes seems to be lurching in the right direction – male and female roles are less prescriptive. But just as the Black Lives Matter movement challenges structural racism and white privilege, the ‘Me Too’ debate means that – quite rightly – masculinity is held up to further scrutiny.

So, while feminism is not about men, we do need to keeping checking on our male privilege. More than that, those of us in education have a responsibility to represent gender accurately and fairly, and without unconscious bias (if that is possible).

Maleness can be ‘toxic’ and every time I do detention duty, I wonder why disciplinary issues in school tend to be a male speciality. There used to be a drive among English teachers to make reading and writing more accessible to boys by doing texts about football or war and having lots of noisy competitions in class. Matt Pinkett, in his wonderful book Boys Don’t Try reflects on this, having worked out that this simply reinforces damaging stereotypes. Pinkett promotes, instead, the elimination of ‘toxic masculinity’, the elimination of the idea that ‘boys love competition’.  Instead, he says, we should be teaching, advocating and modelling ‘tender masculinity’.

I watched a documentary the other day about a British journalist who spent three days at a ‘Man Camp’ in America. Here men learned to access their emotions, address difficult issues from their past, look each other in the eye, wrestle, cry and, finally, open up to friendships, weakness, difficulty, and admit that they love each other. Like many of us, the journalist was deeply cynical on arrival, but by the end he was converted.

And this is where there is a connection to boarding. What is a boys’ boarding house if it is not a ‘man camp’ of sorts?

At boarding schools, houses are competitive but not, I would argue, tribal. Success at a boarding school, in my experience, does not come from relentless alpha-male behaviour; quite the opposite in fact. Success comes in building healthy and open relationships, with your friends, with your housemaster and with your tutor. We do not teach boys to put other people down – we call them out on this. Each one of my fellow housemasters leads a thoughtful and constructive path for the boys in their camp. The junior house system allows that each cohort of boys promoted into a senior house is carefully curated to maintain equality and balance across all groups.

Through the maze that is adolescence, and 21st-century male adolescence in particular, boarding school housemasters offer tenderness, love and support – and everyone is a winner in a system like this.

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